By: Calvin Godfrey

Why isn’t this bigger news? Perhaps because everyone is so busy patting themselves on the back about the recent signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Few mention the impact of moving China’s factory state into a country the size of its big toe.

Late last month, President Obama made the mistake of engaging in an impromptu interview of one of his favorite authors—a woman from Iowa named Marilynne Robinson. Most of the conversation centered on literature, but at some point, she took a sharp turn into the weeds of global trade, imploring the president to declare war on the concept of competition.

Robinson: All the competition has meant, it seems, is that labor is cheap and environmental standards are low. 

Obama: Yeah.

Robinson: But, you know China has a vile ecology around its industrial zones. It is running out of appropriate cheap labor and it’s going into crisis.

Obama: Right.

Robinson: And what does that mean? It means that all of that capital will bundle itself up and land in another place that is relatively more advantageous.

Obama: Right.

In addition to promising a windfall of new manufacturing jobs and tariff exemptions the 12-nation trade pact has been advertised as a golden goose—one that will require Vietnam to hold businesses here to higher environmental standards.  Assuming that is true (and Robinson is wrong) who will enforce those rules?

A World Bank researcher who asked not to be named confirmed that the migrating industries have huge polluting potential that could only be curbed by changing Vietnam’s decentralized nature of monitoring and enforcement.   

There is reason to believe him.

Last year, in a dispatch titled “the Whole Country is Polluted,” the Ministry of Health’s Department of Occupational Disease blamed a failure to police industry for a rise in chronic diseases. The dispatch ended with a dizzying pledge to begin monitoring everything from radioactive waste disposal to noise pollution at once.

The World Bank official countered that the decentralized nature of enforcement makes this difficult. “It’s province to province,” he said.

Thanks to climate change, before the government can sort any of that out, some of those provinces may sink into the sea.

An NGO called the Institute of Social and Environmental Transition is urging bureaucrats in the Mekong Delta to coordinate their efforts to cope with the simultaneous subsidence of the soil and rising of the seas.

The group claims that with enough ingenuity, cooperation and forward thinking, Vietnam can convert its former “rice basket” into a virtual archipelago of fish farming metropolises sustained by canals, dikes and freshwater filtration systems.

“It’s not like a hopeless situation,” said Stephen Tyler, ISET’s man in the water-logged city of Can Tho. “It will require concerted effort and collaboration between different levels of government, different provinces and different departments. If they all pursue their own narrow mandates they will work at cross-purposes.” 

Tyler says he is cautiously optimistic. Vietnamese people have been working together to beat impossible odds for over a thousand years.   

But when asked to point to a single success, he described a program up in Danang that offers non-residents living in coastal shanties access to loans to purchase more storm-resistant building materials.

The program is now self-sustaining, Tyler said cheerfully. It was only after we hung up that the whole notion sounded a bit like a last ditch scramble to bolt the deck chairs down on the Titanic.

Calvin Godfrey is a Vietnam-based freelance writer.