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Saturday, December 4, 2021

Proposed revisions to the draft coastal reclamation decree

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Coastal reclamation has been carried out in many countries in the world. An example close by is Singapore that has reclaimed considerably a large area equal to 25% of the original national area. However, human effects on nature will never be a total victory benefiting only humans. There will be both gains and losses. The core of the issue is therefore to prove that gains outweigh losses and to have measures for minimizing losses. In Singapore, coastal reclamation has been a long-time policy because of the benefits it helps gain. However, Singaporeans have also paid special attention to the alleviation of negative effects of coastal reclamation.

In Vietnam, since the time of poet and scholar Nguyen Cong Tru (1778-1858), dykes have been built and coastal areas reclaimed to create prosperous regions in today’s Ninh Binh and Thai Binh. In recent years, reclamation has been conducted in some localities, typically Quang Ninh and Ha Long Bay in the north, and Kien Giang Province in the south.

Vietnam has a long coast, yet the terrain tilts from east to west. That’s why despite a huge volume of rainfall, Vietnam is still in short of water as all the rainfall drains to the sea bringing with it alluvium. For millennia, the coast has been blanketed with alluvial deposits, particularly coastal provinces. In this respect, Haiphong is an exemplar. This city’s coast has over the past century changed incredibly with its increased surface equal to the area of an entire district. In the region of Tien Lang Airport, more than 4,000 hectares have been reclaimed.

Two opposing opinions about coastal reclamation in Vietnam can be cited. The first argument believes that Vietnam is populous on a narrow strip of land and a long coast; therefore, businesses and local authorities should be allowed to conduct coastal reclamation to have new land suiting their life. Contrary to this belief, the second judgement insists that such reclamation should be prudent and put under strict State control because it takes millions of years for the coast to take on the current stable shape. As the country’s coast is closely attached to marine and coastal wildlife, a legal framework should be created on the basis of regional planning so that coastal reclamation is only allowed in areas that meet certain conditions.

The issuance of regulations on coastal reclamation is therefore necessary and urgent because such reclamation has to conform to international practices. At the same time, however, the rules should stringently take into consideration the effects the reclamation exerts on socio-economic development plans, particularly land use schemes.

The author has read the draft decree on coastal reclamation activities compiled by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. In fact, several workshops have been hosted by the ministry to garner feedback from experts and other sectors. As an independent consultant in water resources and environment, the author suggests the following revisions to the draft decree.

The principle in conducting coastal reclamation

Article 4 of the draft decree stipulates, “Coastal reclamation must minimize adverse consequences on the environment, ecosystems, biodiversity, aquatic resources and natural landscapes; and must not impact the country’s socio-economic potential.”

However, it is very difficult to assert how a project has “minimized” its ecological effects so as to give it a green light. This requirement is too ambiguous, which can give rise to controversies.

A supplement of the principle in the source/location of materials should be added to Article 4 because there are projects that need enormous volumes of materials unavailable on the spot or in need of import. This supplement is necessary to keep at bay “environmental crises” at the source of materials. Moreover, this is a measure allowing the proprietor to have the basis for calculating costs and setting land rents.

Article 5 on the requirements of reclamation aims to set concrete technical requirements for coastal reclamation which are the basis for building reclamation plans of investment projects, evaluating environment effects and granting project licenses. Currently, environmental regulations have yet to stipulate how environmental impact assessment should be conducted for a coastal reclamation project. There are only requirements common for all projects.

Reclamation licenses are necessary

Currently, two options are receiving feedback. The first opts for a reclamation license (in Chapter 3), and the second requires none at all (there is no such a chapter in the draft).

That there are two options is understandable. Some opine that no reclamation license is necessary because the licensing would give birth to more administrative procedures. Meanwhile, solutions to environmental problems have already been stipulated in environmental impact assessment in line with environment regulations.

In my opinion, however, reclamation licenses are necessary because environmental impact assessment alone is not enough. It is also an international practice. To spare a construction project from having to apply for two licenses—reclamation and construction—it is necessary to make clear regulations in Item 3, Article 10 on environmental impact assessment to assert whether it belongs to reclamation or to construction.

Furthermore, the explanation of “reclamation” should make clear which activities on the sea surface are allowed. If these activities result in sedimentation, will they be considered “coastal reclamation?”

Unclear points in the draft

Once the reclamation is finished, is it necessary to obtain a license for land-use right for the reclaimed area?

The draft decree does have stipulations on management and use of reclaimed areas (Chapter 4). However, it is not clear about the procedures for the issuance of land-use right certificates of reclaimed land (which may have different characteristics from reclaimed wasteland).

Another point relates to Point 3 of Article 17 which stipulates that “a land fund along the coast must be guaranteed from the reclaimed land and assigned to local authorities to be used for public works, including a corridor to the beach to ensure the right to access the beach of the people.” This is too vague and should be quantified. Moreover, the guarantee of the reclaimed land fund must be decided during the licensing process. It is unacceptable that it is carried out after the land has been reclaimed (for instance, how many percent of the reclaimed land is saved?).

The most sensitive issue of coastal reclamation is the increased area of land. Therefore, care must be taken from the very start of the decision about the position, surface area and borderline of the reclamation so that the subsequent reclaimed land can be accrued to national land planning and land use plans.

In addition, the opinion that “the decree should not embrace detailed regulations on the assignment, lease and licensing of land but should entail only the basis and timing of the introduction of land to planning and land use plans, and it will be automatically carried out in accordance with the laws on land” is too much ambiguous and prone to loopholes. Please bear in mind that the management of marine resources, land resources and the environment is all under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of National Resources and Environment. Is it true that there is no way to better regulate coastal reclamation in the decree? If the Land Law has not updated this kind of land from reclamation, the draft decree must necessarily entail it.

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