Learning from International Best Practice in River Extraction
A persistent theme from the case studies (as outlined previously) is that consistency of permitting and enforcement needs to be achieved by having a single responsible authority, which acts as a highly-visible single permitting process and authority for the river basin, with a close collaboration between authorities along the length of the river. This is ideally accompanied by certification of responsible, financially solid operators with excellent track records, which will be the only organizations permitted to extract river sand with close control over their operations and clear, meaningful penalties for infringements of permits.
The current situation in the VMD is that provincial authorities (sometimes with boundaries along river channels) seem to be responsible for permitting and enforcement. Given the urgency of the situation in the Mekong Delta, it is recommended that mineral ownership, permitting, monitoring/policing and enforcement are all explicitly vested at the national level, with the potential for the Viet Nam Government to delegate the permitting, monitoring and enforcement elements to one single Mekong River Authority with a directorate composed of competent civil servants, with political oversight.
There are a number of countries (including China, India, Malaysia, Colombia, New Zealand and UK) where detailed technical guidelines have been developed for river extraction, which could be suitably adopted for use in the case of the VMD. Several of these define in considerable detail when and where extraction can take place, with prohibitions on extraction close to various types of utility infrastructure, constraints on the location of material stockpiles, the type of extraction equipment to be used, including safety aspects. The basic technical guidelines included under Decree 23/2020 should be expanded into a detailed code of good practice by the regional permitting authority, ideally to be developed in consultation with the mining operators in the VMD.
The most successful case studies in phasing out of illegal river extraction (namely China, India, Malaysia and Colombia) are marked by determined detection of any continuing illegal activity (by GPS monitoring, use of drones, etc.), combined with a range of sanctions and penalties including progressive fines, confiscation of loads or trucks and even imprisonment of repeated offenders.
Experiences from GAIN member show that, to be successful, there has to be very strong action by the relevant authorities, not just in regulation, but also in implementation and monitoring. GAIN experiences from other jurisdictions show that it is necessary not only to specifically permit river/delta extraction areas and quantities, but to also introduce GPS tracking of operating vessels and of all delivery trucks, to ensure compliance. It is also highly desirable that the concrete industry suppliers and construction contractors cooperate through purchasing of aggregates certified to be responsibly-sourced.
In compliance monitoring, enforcement of permits and legislation in the VMD over an area of 40,500km2 is a big task, yet can be achieved with an empowered regional authority equipped with sufficient policing resources. Local communities need to be enlisted through hotlines, social media etc to report infringements and will need to be reinforced with satellite imagery and drone monitoring. Key penalties need to include greatly increased fines, confiscation of plant or even imprisonment for serious and repeated violations; other disincentives can be withdrawal (or suspension) of the Responsible Operator Certificate, thereby cutting off the operator from his/her source of value creation.
The appointment of high-profile, respected project leader or champion to drive and enforce change, co-ordinate action between different Ministries and the permitting authority and to communicate forcefully on economically beneficial alternatives to river sand both locally and in upstream countries.
In Viet Nam, with so many parties potentially involved in regulation, permitting, monitoring and enforcement, there can be potential for delays in achieving alignment and implementing desirable strategies and regulations. To overcome this, Viet Nam may wish to consider the approach (as deployed, for example, in China, India, Malaysia and Colombia), where a single high-profile, respected and influential individual is appointed as Project Leader for the VMD with a term, say, of three years and a brief, which would ensure delivery of overall Government objectives in reducing/elimination river sand extraction and allow direct intervention in order to deal with bureaucratic blockages, to champion the rapid passage of new legislation, regulations, guidelines, norms and standards and to lead interactions with upstream countries.
Creation of a professional aggregates and/or a construction industry association is highly desirable to provide an effective interlocutor for regulatory authorities, to assist the permitting authority in the certification of responsible operators and a focus for continuous industrial improvement as well as leading on green labels (which for example would require certificates of source for sand and aggregates and penalize the use of river sand) and on revised sand, aggregate, norms, applying also to manufactured and recycled sand and aggregates. It would appear that the Ministry of Construction could put these into effect.