Water Champion

Water Champions initiate or implement water reforms in their chosen field, and are directly involved in improving the water situation in their respective countries.

Nguyen Thai Lai: Establishing Water Rights in Viet Nam
November 2004

By Maria Christina Dueñas Knowledge Management Officer ABOUT THE CHAMPION
Dr. Nguyen Thai Lai is the Director General of Viet Nam's Department of Water Resources Management. With a background in hydrologic modeling and water management, Dr. Lai has acquired through the years the key skills required for his work, in general, and water allocation and rights management, in particular. He has a keen understanding of how river systems work, their capacity to absorb impacts from human uses, and is able to consider issues on a whole system basis. The Department of Water Resources Management is a new department under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE). Its involvement with water allocation, enforcement of water rights and resolution of water-related conflicts stems from its overall responsibility for State water resource management. This involves understanding and assessing Viet Nam's water resources, the competing demands for water-- including those for people's basic family needs and the environment-- and making decisions about the overall access to water for the benefit of the people. The Department also has the legislative responsibility to give priority to water for living and license all water extractions in Viet Nam, from rivers and groundwater. The Department, under Dr. Lai's leadership, is pursuing the completion and implementation of an overall legal and policy framework within which water rights can be established. In consultation with key stakeholders, it has recently determined a workable water licensing approach and is now moving towards its implementation. Also, the government is working toward a new approach to river basin management where the rules for accessing water would be clearly defined. However, the Department of Water Resources Management is still in the early stages of implementing its responsibilities. As Dr. Lai explains, "We clearly have a long way to go."

How does Viet Nam deal with water rights? Viet Nam has already extensively developed its water resources to sustain economic development and poverty reduction. Many dams have been built, bores sunk, water supply systems developed, irrigation schemes built, hydroelectric schemes built, etc. The result is economic growth that is recognized as being amongst the highest in the world. This water development was needed to foster economic growth, reduce poverty levels and provide self sufficiency in food production over the past 20 years. The problem is that all of this development took place without proper consideration for long-term sustainability. Nor was it undertaken in a way that clearly conveys legal rights to access water to the various users involved, nor protect the basic rights to living water for family needs. These are the two issues that we now have to begin to resolve - is the development sustainable, and how do we convey legal access rights to the people? Viet Nam's Water Resources Law specifies river basins as the planning units to consider these issues. It also provides for a licensing system and requires that water for living be given the highest priority. What are your main challenges to water resources allocation and use? I've already mentioned the first crucial issue. Establishing a sustainable level of water extraction from rivers and aquifers by providing a proper environmental share is fundamental for our future. Without establishing this share, the rivers or aquifers on which the social and economic

development of Viet Nam depends will be under increasing threat. For example, if an aquifer is destroyed through overextraction or pollution, then the people who depend on that aquifer for living water or for their livelihood will have to find other water sources or put in costly treatment facilities. This can have a devastating effect on local communities, particularly the poor who so often rely on natural systems for their water. A basic problem for us is that the people generally see water as a free and abundant product -nature's gift to us. We will have to work hard to change that perception. The lack of a sound licensing system also provides a poor basis for business investment. For example, new industries and agricultural developments are proceeding without any clear understanding of their rights and limitations in terms of long term access to water. Without clear specification, critical investment could be discouraged, or investments made could turn out to be inefficient or unsustainable. On the other hand, we also realize that while a licensing system may enable poor water users to protect their water from big businesses, this may not always be the case. Big investors usually have better ways of protecting their interests, and this could end up being detrimental to poor water users. A delicate balancing act will need to be carried out. With greater levels of economic activity depending on access to a reliable water supply, competition for and conflicts over water in the dry times will only increase. Defining the shares in the dry season flows (including those for the environment and water for living) and then distributing those to competing users will be critical.

Lack of information is also a key issue to introduce a water access rights system. We have very little good scientific information on which to assess the environmental needs. Also, no water extractions are currently licensed and records of extraction volumes are not available. This makes it hard to establish a basis for issuing rights. Other issues include the need to have adequate asset management programs for the infrastructure that supports these water schemes - we currently invest too little in asset maintenance. New infrastructure may also be harder to justify in many areas and yield increasingly poor returns. How does Viet Nam address these challenges? Unfortunately, it's still early days for us when it comes to dealing with these issues. We therefore look at innovations in other countries for some guidance. Earlier this year, I visited New South Wales in Australia and was impressed by a number of things I saw there. They have recently moved to a water rights system similar to a land rights system, and have a flourishing water market that allows water to move to new high value businesses. Water rights over there are valuable commercial business assets. They have also introduced statutory river basin and aquifer sharing plans to spell out the water management rules that under-pin these licenses. That may be the future for Viet Nam, but we have a long way to go. There are also a number of technical and management tool that can assist us. Again from New South Wales, we recently saw a simple groundwater management tool that could assist us in the management of water extractions from aquifers with dropping water levels. It's knowing that these tools are available, and being able to bring them in and adapt them to help us deal with our local problems, that is important for developing countries like Viet Nam. How has your Department helped to improve the water rights situation? Our key contribution to date has been the establishment of the legal and policy basis for this to happen. We recently passed a Decree that puts in effect the licensing provisions of the Law. This defines how we will issue water extraction licenses and permits that allow wastewater discharge. The Government has also asked us to prepare a Decree that will define a broad based, cross sectoral approach to river basin management in Viet Nam. This will provide the legal basis for resolving issues over access to water at the local level, directly involving the affected communities.

What key lessons can you share from your work in water rights? First, we need to get the legal and policy framework right. If we want to maximize the gains from water developments, then we need to make our regulatory and legal requirements clear and transparent. Secondly, we have to look hard at the sustainability issues, and this is not easy. The current water developments were crucial for the rapid development of Viet Nam, but we must now evaluate their long-term impacts and see what we need to do to ensure that they do not jeopardize the long term health of our rivers or aquifers. This is so important for our future, particularly for the poorer communities who depend so much on those water sources. Thirdly, we have to make sure that decisions about water sharing are made at the local river basin level. While establishing a national framework is fundamental, resolution of competing interests for, or conflicts over, access to water is best addressed on a river basin basis. Only at that level can the competing interests of the environment, water for living, towns, irrigation, industry, power generation, etc be assessed in terms of the long term interests of the community and the highly variable flow regimes of each river source. RELATED LINK
Sharing Water in Viet Nam

_______________________________ *This article was first published online at ADB's Water for All website in November 2004: http://www.adb.org/Water/Champions/lai.asp. The Water Champions series was developed to showcase individual leadership and initiative in implementing water sector reforms and good practices in Asia and the Pacific. The champions, representing ADB’s developing member countries, are directly involved in improving the water situation in their respective countries or communities. The series is regularly featured in ADB’s Water for All News, which covers water sector developments in the Asia and Pacific region.

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