Vietnam is home to more than 2,300 rivers and thirteen major river systems, with roughly 60% of Vietnam’s fresh surface water centred in the Mekong Delta. Although the country is rich in water resources, there is an emerging mismatch between supply and demand in certain locations and seasons, with consequent water stress that inevitably cascades through the economy. In coming years, these stresses are likely to intensify, unless action is taken now.
Viet Nam’s access to improved water supplies increased from 65% in 2000 to 95% in 2017, while access to basic sanitation jumped from 52% to 84% during the same period. Despite the enormous progress made, in 2020, 10.7 million people (10.15 million in rural areas and 550,000 in urban areas) still practiced open defecation. The lack of access to water and sanitation coupled with poor hygiene practices contributes to high rates of diarrhoea, pneumonia and parasitic infections.
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment state that almost 80% of the diseases in Vietnam are caused by polluted water. There are many cases of cholera, typhoid, dysentery and malaria each year in the country.
Rapid economic and urban development in Vietnam has led to rising water pollution. Due to industrial, domestic, and mining waste pollution, all major river basins throughout the country are polluted, and most do not meet adequate drinking standards. The country has few centralized wastewater treatment plants, and about three-quarters of its industrial wastewater is discharged into the environment without proper treatment.
In addition, the geography and topography of Vietnam also makes the country susceptible to natural hazards. Floods caused by heavy rainfall affect all major cities, record droughts have become normal especially for the Mekong delta and the fertile central highlands, while increasingly severe typhoons are hitting the central coastal regions. This can lead to multitude of water-related problems in Vietnam, including the higher incidence of waterborne diseases.
As a top producer and consumer of rice, agriculture also has a large burden on water resources in Vietnam.
Key policies and governance approach
The legal protection of inland freshwater is controlled by a sequence of laws, starting with the Law on Water Resources 2012, followed by the Law on Irrigation 2017, and most recently the revised Law on Environmental Protection 2020. The Law on Environmental Protection 2020 introduced a new water quality management plan. This plan includes assessing and forecasting trends in surface water quality, identifying sanitary protection zones in drinking water intake areas, protection corridors for surface water sources, and identifying aquatic areas.
Implementation of these Laws is guided by a number of Decrees, and new regulatory documents promulgated or adjusted. For example, Decree No. 80/2014/ND-CP on drainage and wastewater treatment, Decree No. 38/2015/ND-CP on waste and scrap management, Decree No. 154/2016/ ND-CP on environmental protection fees for wastewater, Decree No.155/2016/ND-CP on sanctioning of administrative violations in the field of environmental protection, and Decree No.53/2020/ND-CP on environmental protection fees for wastewater, among several others.
Marine water quality is less protected by laws and regulations, with the main strategic controls covered by Resolution No. 36-NQ/TW on the strategy for the sustainable development of Viet Nam's marine economy by 2030, with a vision to 2045.
Successes and Remaining Challenges
Although a number of efforts have been implemented to improve water governance in the country (both in term of quality and quantity), there are still several hot spots of water pollution; and incidents related to serious surface water pollution continue to take place. Much of the problem results from underinvestment in collection and treatment of wastewater, as well as challenges related to the enforcement of the large set of regulations that deal with wastewater management.
Imbalances in resources and capacity are evident. MONRE has responsibility for management of the legal and regulatory framework, information and resource assessment, water resources strategy and planning, water allocation and resource management, and pollution control. However, it lacks the human and financial resources to take on this massive task. In addition, it is noted that a high degree of delegation of responsibilities, financing, and human resources to subnational governments can create difficulties in integrating management of water resources at the central level.
In recent years, the private sector has been increasingly encouraged to participate in water supply (equitization), especially in areas of high population density, by being provided with preferential land access and loan subsidies. The biggest concern remains the fragmented water supply in remote areas, where donor assistance still plays an important role, and the maintenance costs are high and ever increasing.
Initiatives and Development Plans
The Hanoi Water initiative from the Hanoi Department of Construction will supply access to clean water for “50 communes with 120,000 households” in Hanoi’s suburbs. If successful, the proportion of households with access to clean tap water will increase to 85%.
In addition, the Ho Chi Minh Pipeline is a $40 million project to increase tap water supply to Binh Canh District. This neglected district is just outside of Ho Chi Minh City. Although existing pipes technically reach the Binh Canh district, it is at the end of the pipe system. As a result, the residents experience weak water flow, and in dry months, no water at all. This project will extend the pipeline and increase its diameter to 1-1.5 meters. It will also eventually link to “the water system of the Mekong Delta’s Long An Province.”
For 2021-2023, the Vietnam Environment Administration (VEA) will focus on developing new regulations and guidelines related to the formulation of water quality management plans and developing a water quality management plan for inter-provincial rivers in 3 major river basins, including Cau, Nhue-Day and Dong Nai. In 2023, VEA-MONRE will develop and finalize draft plans for water environment quality management.
- Enhance the monitoring and enforcement capacity of both relevant central and local governmental agencies.
- Improve implementation of existing policies that aim to reduce the environmental impacts of both domestic and industrial sources, with an emphasis on polluting industries. Cleaner production techniques have been introduced to reduce waste and lower resource consumption in industry, and improve the performance of major polluting sectors (e.g., textiles, food processing, leather). Despite this, results from government surveys, indicated that in 2010, only 11% of industrial facilities in Vietnam were using cleaner production techniques to reduce their energy, fuel, and materials consumption. Thus, there is much room for further improvement.
- Address the pollution problems associated with craft villages. More than 2,500 craft villages exist, mainly in the Red River Delta, and are often involved in economic activities such as metal recycling and leather tanning, which contain plastic and lead that cause environmental pollution. Water pollution is a prevailing problem, affecting not only the handicraft villages but also the villages downstream.
- There is an additional need to formulate appropriate policies and measures to ensure environmentally sustainable business practices in craft villages. In addition to broad-based solutions, such as strengthening pollution control-related regulations and investing in wastewater treatment infrastructure, a master plan needs to be developed to address the special needs of craft villages.
- In agriculture, Vietnam needs to remove support policies that work counter to the environment, such as waiving water-use fees. However, it will have to make such changes while maintaining measures to protect the rural poor from their impact.
- Improve public access to information on water consumption and pollution to activate broad public support for government measures. Publicly accessible information can help identify delays in the adoption of improved treatments.
- There is also a strong need to upgrade, develop, and modernize irrigation systems in sync with other industrial and sectoral infrastructure systems to ensure the availability of water sources, the ability to prevent and mitigate natural disasters, the ability to cope with climate change, and to meet the demands of production and people's livelihoods.
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