On July 6, IUCN organised the semi-annual Leadership Committee meeting of the USAID-funded Ha Long-Cat Ba Alliance (HLCBA) at the Vinpearl Ha Long Resort on Reu Island in Ha Long Bay. The 66 participants included senior officials from the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hai Phong and Ha Long City People’s Committee, UNESCO, French Embassy, and USAID.
The meeting was an opportunity to discuss water pollution and environmental management in Ha Long Bay and the Cat Ba Archipelago, which while separated into two provinces form part of the same marine ecosystem.
In his opening remarks, Chris Abrams, Acting USAID Director, pointed out that there are huge investments connected to the beauty of the bay and that while the Alliance, a novel multi-stakeholder approach in the Viet Nam context, has gained traction, it should expand its focus beyond waste water management.
Ho Quang Huy, Vice-Chair of the Ha Long City People's Committee, said that the need for improved environmental management was clear and that there is now a need for government to implement its commitments.
IUCN's Nguyen Bich Hien summarised what the Alliance had accomplished since the previous meeting in December 2015. These include: support for the establishment of the Coca-Cola EKOCENTER in Ha Phong in March (https://www.iucn.org/content/whats-ekocenter-and-what-does-it-do) providing free drinking water and internet access to 200 families that were relocated out of the Ha Long Bay WHS in 2013; initiating a regular trash cleanup campaign with Bhaya (and hopefully other leading cruise boat companies) with a first clean up in June involving 110 volunteers (https://www.iucn.org/news/action-green-ha-long-volunteers-unite-clean-bay); completing the draft Green Lotus+ standard for cruise boats that builds directly on VNAT's Green Lotus hotel standard with additional criteria for boats and marine tourism; and continued support to Hai Phong and Quang Ninh to cooperate on the expansion of the WHS to include the Cat Ba Archipelago - Hai Phong is still waiting for a reply to the letter it sent in January agreeing to cooperate.
Hien pointed out that without a comprehensive waste water treatment system in place, only the few high-end boats with built-in waste water treatment system would get certified. The vast majority of boats have to discharge their "grey" and "black" water directly into the bay because there is no waste water collection or treatment service available for them to use, so even if they wanted to comply with environmental regulations, they couldn't.
In his update, Ho Quang Huy said that the transfer of authority from the Ha Long Bay Management Board to the Ha Long City People's Committee in November 2015 did not in any way reflect a reduced emphasis on environmental management. The people's committee has all the authority it needs to enforce regulations. So far this year, 88 boats, almost 20% of the total, have had their licenses revoked and thanks to no longer outsourcing entrance fee collection, revenue has already reached 347 billion dong, or over US$ 15 million, a one-third increase over 2015 despite no increase in visitor numbers or entrance fees.
The people's committee is preparing a work plan to implement the Quang Ninh Province Environmental Plan for 2016-2020 and expects to issue a tender in 2017 to implement a waste treatment system in the bay. Onshore, Japan International Cooperation Agency has offered a US$ 25 million loan to expand waste water treatment coverage to 100% of Ha Long City. Huy said that the Alliance had played a key role is fostering dialogue and advancing solutions.
Nguyen Anh Tuan of the Cat Ba Heritage Management Board talked about declining water quality since regular monitoring started in 2006. The main cause, he stated, is the 486 large fish-farming cages (and over 8,000 small ones) and their 1,000 workers. Some of the floating fishing families who were removed from Ha Long Bay went to Cat Ba. So far this year, Cat Ba has earned 10 billion dong, or about US$ 450,000, in entrance fees – much less than Ha Long Bay or what is needed to effectively manage the site, Tuan said. He also confirmed that Hai Phong is keen to move ahead with Quang Ninh on the proposed WHS renomination.
Regis Argot, who works for EKOTANK, a French marine environmental management firm, and has consulted for IUCN, explained how Monaco, Nice, St Tropez, Cannes, and other leading ports on the Cote d'Azur, have put in place a mobile waste water treatment system that's paid for by a fee included in the daily mooring charge and covers about 10,000 boats.
Such a system would easily be applied to Ha Long Bay. The capital cost would be about $3 million – a small portion of the annual revenue – covering a waste water treatment plant at port and a fleet of boats to collect water from the 500 boats operating in the bay. Cost recovery for both the investment and operations could come from charging boats a fee per cubic meter of water treated.
Regis observed that the best argument in favor of such a solution is economic: tourism in Ha Long Bay is a business and the government needs to protect this asset to generate future income. Meantime, we know from TripAdvisor and other social media that the value of this asset, as perceived by foreign tourists, is declining. In fact, visitor numbers have not increased since 2008, so the economic case for cleaning up the bay is clear.
Darius Postma, head of CSR for Bhaya Cruises, talked about the results of the June clean up on three beaches in Ha Long Bay, during which almost one ton of trash was collected. Mostly this was expanded polystyrene, which breaks down into small pellets that in lab experiments cause high mortality in juvenile fish. The data have been entered into the Ocean Conservancy database (http://www.oceanconservancy.org/our-work/international-coastal-cleanup/2016-ocean-trash-index.html). One way to solve the problem would be to replace the expanded polystyrene floats from the fish farms with plastic barrels. A rough calculation indicates that this would cost several hundred thousand dollars.