Multidimensional Challenges of Water Governance in Vietnam

Water is essential for life, yet the world is facing water crisis. It has been commonly attributed to the natural limitations of freshwater availability, inadequate financing and appropriate technologies. Nevertheless, profound failures in water governance have been recently identified as important factors causing water crisis in both developing and developed countries [1,2]. Vietnam has been paying more and more attention to this regard. For instance, in the processes of preparation for the 132nd Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) in March 2015 in Hanoi, the National Assembly of Vietnam had organized an important workshop “The role of the parliamentary in shaping a new system of water governance” in December 2014 and called for international and local experts’ contribution to critically discuss the Vietnamese water governance. This article aims to provide an overall understanding of social-economic and capacity-ecological challenges of the Vietnam water governance regime. In addition, the paper presents its recent strategies and initiatives towards improved water governance in Vietnam, which would be of helps for the future policy interventions towards the sustainable water management and water service provisions in Vietnam and also other ASEAN countries.

“Lives in the Mekong Delta”-Photo courtesy by the author, July 2015

In terms of social challenges, Vietnam faces rapid population growth and urbanization, and thus more competing demands for water and its technical infrastructures. The rising disparity in income is also of concern, as it would widen the gap in access to water supply and sanitation. Meanwhile, overall public awareness about water issues and respective behaviors of most residents are quite detrimental to the water resources. The viewpoint that “water is endlessly given by God” is imprinted in the minds of most local people, resulting in low awareness of the necessity for water saving and protection. The behavior of littering in public spaces and waterways is a chronic issue in urban areas of Vietnam. The ineffective and inadequate regulations and law enforcement of littering behaviors have caused many urban rivers to become “garbage” rivers. Raising and changing public awareness and behaviors related to water are thus essential to sustainable conservation of scarce water sources.

In the perspective on economic challenges, the exceptionally rapid economic development, together with the shift of agriculture towards industry and services sectors in the economic structure has caused a fundamental change in our water usage. The lack of economic instruments based on scientific evidences and poor water market functions also undermine the sound management of water resources. Implementation of the users-pay and polluters-pay principles in practice is still in its early stage. Moreover, the proper application of water market solutions while ensuring the safeguard measures for the weaker and poorer water users in the marketplace is also challenging. Thus, the quest for balancing economic development and social equity and water security is extremely an arduous task for the water governance in Vietnam.

Apart from the socio-economic challenges, limited institutional capacity is another major impediment. For instance, there have been existing large conflicts and poor coordination between ministries and line sector agencies due to on-going institutional restructuring and unclear definition of responsibilities at different levels of government. In the past, water resource management was mainly responsible by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) at national and trans-provincial levels and locally by provincial Departments of Agriculture and Rural Development. Reforms to water resource law in 2002 shifted management responsibilities to a newly established Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE) and provincial Departments of Natural Resources and Environment respectively. MONRE was established to oversee water resource management activities, while MARD only has responsibility to deliver water-related services, similar to other ministries. In spite of that change, human resources have not been transferred from MARD to MONRE accordingly which has led to the severe expert shortage working on water management sectors. Moreover, human capacity with sufficient graduates and skilled personnel for water resources management in the water management sector is still highly limited. The personnel survey of MONRE in 2010 showed that the proportion of human resources for water sector in MONRE was only 0.4% – the lowest number of human resources in natural resources and environment sectors.

In addition to the internal challenges, the water governance in Vietnam also faces an inherent ecological constraint of water availability. With the total annual surface water availability of 3,480 cubic meters, Vietnam has been officially announced “a water deficient nation” [3, 4]. About two thirds of Vietnam’s water resources originate outside the country, Vietnam is more susceptible to water resources decision’s made in upstream countries. The average annual rainfall of 1,940 mm is unevenly distributed across Vietnam, together with prolonged dry season resulting in serious water shortages in many areas [4]. Despite such constraints of water availability, with its long coastline of over 3200 kilometers excluding islands, Vietnam has been featured as one of the most water-related disaster-prone countries in the world and its different geographical regions differ in water vulnerability threats. The coastal lowland regions with an increasing population density are becoming more vulnerable to impacts from global warming and deforestation such as salinity intrusion, flooding, while the high mountain regions have experienced more serious droughts and flash floods.

To overcome such multidimensional challenges of the water governance for sustainable management of its scarce water resources, a number of strategies and initiatives are being taken in Vietnam [5]. The improvement of legal framework and its enforcement in management and protection of water resources is its first priority. International and regional cooperation for gaining international support and assistance is also crucial to ensure its water security. The basic investigation, monitoring and prediction of water resources, is invested for building a comprehensive database of national water resources. Water resources planning including allocation and protection of water resources as well as prevention of water-related damages, at the national, river basin and local levels is the key for resolving the on-going conflicts in water sharing. The public communication and education for sustainable water related awareness and behaviors is being implemented simultaneously. The consolidation of water institutions and improvement of institutional capacities as well as enhancement of public-private partnership in water activities is being considered.

List of references:

[1]. UNDP. (2004). Water Governance for Poverty Reduction.

[2]. Pahl-Wostl, C., &Kranz, N. (2010).Water governance in times of change.Environmental Science & Policy, 13(7), 567–570.

[3] Do, T. H. (2007). When Global Water Policy goes local: Mainstream versus Everyday Water Governance in Vietnam. University of Auckland

[4]. Asian Development Bank (2008). Viet Nam Water Sector Review.Retrieved from

[5]  Nguyen, T.L. (2015). Water is essential for sustainable development. Nhandan. Retrieved from

About the Authors: Dr. Duong BUI is one of ASEAN-U.S. S&T 2015  Fellows  whose researches focus on water management, water policy with particular attention to coastal areas in Vietnam and the ASEAN region. Prior to his current work as Deputy Director of NAWAPI’s Department at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of Vietnam, he was joining the Water Resources Uni. as a lecturer (Hanoi, 2005-2007); Sejong University  as a Research Assistant(Seoul, 2007-2008); Tokyo Metropolitan University as a PhD Fellow (2008-2011); United Nations University as a Postdoc Researcher (Tokyo, 2011), National University of Singapore as Research Fellow (2011-2013), then Hanoi Uni. of  Natural Resources and Environment (HUNRE) as Head of Department (2013-2014). Menv. Tien DU is now working at Da Nang Institute for Socio-Economic Development (DISED). Her work focuses on the national and local environmental governance, particularly for the central coastal region of Vietnam. Her current works focuses on challenges of natural resources usage in local districts of Da Nang city and Quangnam provinces, community-based monitoring of hydropower reservoirs operation and drought management risks in Vu Gia – Thu Bon river basin. She received her bachelor’s degree from the Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan (2011) and her Master of Environment from The University of Melbourne (2013).