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The oceans are dying as we celebrate World Oceans Day

In 2016, 70 tons of fish died in Vietnam because of toxins released by the Formosa steel Photograph: (AFP)

WION Delhi, India Jun 07, 2017, 08.12 AM (IST) Devanshi Verma

The water is choking

Oceans produce more than half the world's oxygen, provide clean energy, generate employment. If you have been in the depths of the ocean, you would know the calming, therapeutic impact it has on you. But we are destroying the marine world, killing 1000s of species that live in the oceans.

In April 2016, 70 tons of decaying, stinking dead fish washed up on central coast beaches of Vietnam. Some of them were even rare species, on the verge of extinction. Hunting fish for consumption helps maintain the balance of ecosystem and food chain. However, contaminating their homes to give them a slow death is nothing but mass murder.

Undeniably, the toxic compound level must have been highly concentrated for so many fish to die in the region. A large water body, such as Thi Vai river, would require humungous amounts of the compound, and a release site fairly close to the affected fish.
Formosa steel plant, a multi-billion dollar subsidiary of Taiwan's Formosa Plastic Group, was identified as the culprit for the dead fish that laid across the 200km of coastline in the country's worst environmental disaster.

The steel plant in the Ha Tinh province had discharged waste containing phenol, cyanide and iron hydroxides into the water, harming sea life and local economies dependent on fishing and tourism.   
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Inspections found the steel plant in the Ha Tinh province had discharged waste containing phenol, cyanide and iron hydroxides into the water, harming sea life and local economies dependent on fishing and tourism.
  
The company paid $500 million in compensation, which was distributed to local victims. More than 200,000 people were directly affected, including 41,000 fishermen and women. The fine may partially help to pay for the economic losses to the community but the more important question is, who is accountable for the loss of lives and the ecological imbalance caused by the disaster?
 
The environment ministry of Vietnam mentioned the region could take a decade to completely recover from the incident. 

What is more astonishing is the government’s reaction to curb the matter.

Hushing their voices

A wave of protests unfolded in Vietnam that continue till date. However, the Government of Vietnam has so far been most insensitive to the environmental crisis at hand. Not only did the local police stop fishermen from marching towards the firm for claims, over 1,000 villagers have filed complaints with local authorities over alleged slow and unfair compensation. The government has put in their best effort to prevent mass filing of lawsuits against the firm. On top of this, abduction of drivers and other forms of harassment were also reported. 

As the government cracked down on the protesters, the United Nations have publicly expressed concerns about the increasing violation of human rights in Vietnam.
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As the government cracked down on the protesters, the United Nations have publicly expressed concerns about the increasing violation of human rights in Vietnam. Unfortunately, however, the Government of Vietnam was not detered by the criticism. Protesters were disperse though use of Tear gas, and it was reported that 300 people were beaten and arrested during the protest. The concern was dismissed within three days by the Vietnamese government. In a recent protest, another activist was arrested.

Blocking the social media

The government's resistance to the protest was not limited to the physical world--it also suppressed the rebellious voices on digital platforms. When the public demanded transparency and accountability, Facebook was 'unofficially' blocked by the government. Media reports claim that the government always blocks social media whenever there are legitimate demands or pressure from people.

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Sealed lips of the Vietnamese press

The scenario also raised serious questions on the promptness national press showed in distributing information. There was a delay in breaking the news to the public. Officials claim that it was necessary to restrict news coverage while the investigation was underway. This is not unusual for the country which has been consistently ranked poorly in matters of press freedom. Now, there seems to be a stricter surveillance on environmental journalism as the public has become more aware of problems.

Fallacy of the Verdict

Vietnam Party Secretariat punished four high-ranking officials over the Formosa fish death scandal. Unfortunately, however, the environment officials of the Vietnamese council who were monitoring the progress of the steel plant recently have given the green signal to Formosa to test run a new furnace. The furnace would discharge 300 cubic meters of biochemical sewage every day, but the council claims that the treatment system would be able to handle it. The approval coincides with Formosa Plastics Group, one of Taiwan’s leading conglomerates that holds a 70 per cent stake in the Ha Tinh plant, pledge to pour another $1 billion into the plant, raising its investment to $5.5 billion.

Are we all partners in crime?

Even though the wastes from the plant were the primary reason for the disaster, can we ignore the amount of pollution we cause to the ocean on a daily basis? Evidently, the contamination was caused by the toxins getting caught in a net of glue that was there in the first place because humans have been letting out filthy water into rivers and oceans. It was this human-made net that turned a mobile carrier of toxins to become the weapon of murder. 

The contamination was caused by the toxins getting caught in a net of glue that was there in the first place because humans have been letting out filthy water into rivers and oceans
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World Oceans Day and the sad health of waterbodies

Recognised by the UN, World Oceans Day is a global day of ocean celebration and collaboration for a better future. Celebrated on June 8th, this year's theme 'Our Oceans, Our Future' encourages to find solutions to plastic pollution and prevent marine litter for a healthier ocean and a better future.

But is merely celebrating one day enough to raise awareness? Will we one day break the politics that encircle the control and management of natural resources? 

Vietnam's case of water pollution disaster is not one in isolation. The revered Yamuna river in India, that was once blue in color, is now one of the most polluted rivers in the world. In another tragic incident, which is known as the worst disaster in a West African nation, thousands of cubic meters of mine wastewater were spilled in the River Asuman. The Great Barrier Reef of Australia saw unprecedented bleaching due to extremely warm ocean temperatures. In developing countries, 70 per cent of industrial wastes are dumped untreated into waters, polluting the usable water supply. More than 80 per cent of sewage in developing countries is discharged untreated, polluting rivers, lakes and coastal areas.

One day is not enough to protect the oceans. Moreover, rather than a celebration, it needs to be an ongoing process with the aim of conserving resources that we otherwise take for granted.

 

Devanshi Verma

Devanshi is a freelance feature writer. When not writing, she loves to travel and explore food cultures across geographies.

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