Ba Tang, Vietnam Project

Sadly, we had to terminate our water supply project in Vietnam.  This was very hard for our Board members, as we had been planning the administration, logistics, designs and budgets for the project since 2017.

It was especially sad in that we were not able to bring water to the villagers who need that water so much!

Peter Perry was in country from 31st January to 14th March, ably supported by Frankie Plummer.  He did a great job in fighting his way through much of the (questionable) red tape to find us a great house/office, and to get 2 good local men to help us – an Administration Manager and a Construction Supervisor.  See more details below.

I was in country from 27th February to 16th April, but seemed to spend most of my time trying to finalise the designs for the water supplies, as well as to get accurate up-to-date population data relating to the villages.

Dr Denis Bartrum also came over from 17th March until 16th April, to provide medical support to the villagers and local community, but the red tape stopped him from coming into the border area where our project sites were, and also stopped him from even visiting the local hospital in Khe Sanh.

Some of the achievements we had in the short time we were in country were:

  • Held initial meeting with the Provincial Department of Foreign Affairs (DoFA), and formally signed the updated MOU;
  • Selected and contracted a local Administration Manager and a Construction Supervisor;
  • Located, leased and set-up a building for use as our office and house;
  • Located and leased a suitable second-hand 4WD vehicle;
  • Applied for and obtained an “official stamp”.  This required Peter Perry and our Administration Manager to drive the 11 hours from Khe Sanh to Ha Noi, and return – a 2-day journey;
  • Prepared a detailed Bill of Materials for the water supply materials for the first set of villages, and sought quotations;
  • Prepared a Quotation Recommendation for the supply and delivery of sand, gravel, cement and reinforcing bars;
  • Held six meetings with senior staff from the Ba Tang Commune; and
  • Prepared medical documents, including the following papers:  “MiVAC Medical Plan”, “Agent Orange and Glyphosate”, and “Dangers of using well water in Vietnam”.

MiVAC officers also helped the communities in Ba Tang and Khe Sanh through “hearts and minds” activities, such as: 

  • Mr Ha (our Construction Supervisor) personally collected about 100kg of clothing from around his home village and donated the clothing to villagers in the Ba Tang 3 village.
  • Dr Denis Bartrum and Brian Boon were invited in Khe Sanh on several occasions to teach or speak English to classes at a local Kindergarten, a formal English school, plus an informal English school.  These activities were conducted on weekends or at night.
  • At the request of the kindergarten owner, Dr Bartrum also conducted limited medical examinations on about 40 children, which included neck glands, and lung and heart checks.

This community involvement was well demonstrated by the many parents who stopped us in the streets to thank us for our work at the kindergartens and schools.

Several significant challenges were encountered, which included:

  • The main point that Peter Perry made during his early meeting in January with their provincial Department of Foreign Affairs (DoFA) was for the establishment of a single point of contact within DoFA which would be vital for ease of administration and timely resolution of any issues that might arise. This request appears to have been ignored.
  • Peter Perry being advised by one of the DoFA Deputy Directors that he wanted water bores drilled, with electric water pumps, rather than our planned gravity-fed supply system. He claimed that our chosen water drawing points were likely to dry up. Villagers however do not want bores, as the bore water is not drinkable and cannot be made drinkable, containing such things as calcium, arsenic, manganese, barium, ammonium, and iron – which can lead to harmful effects on cardiac and cerebral function.  Peter Perry again affirmed on his next visit to Ba Tang that the water points were springs and villagers had no history of ever drying up.
  • On my arrival in Dong Ha, we arranged a meeting with DoFA to sign the latest MOU, which we did. After the signing, they then advised that we now needed to submit “project documents” under their Decree 80 – which I estimate will take at least 16 weeks to gain approvals, due to the many departments that might be involved – see Flowchart at Annex C.  This was disappointing that DoFA had not advised us of this requirement well before our arrival (thereby giving us the time to complete these documents), especially as one of the MOU responsibilities of DoFA was to “Provide all … relevant documents … for MiVAC to review …”.  (We found Decree 80 a very convoluted document, and we still do not believe it applied to MiVAC and our charity role.)  With our local staff salaries, office and vehicle rent, we stood to lose $US1000 per week for any lost time.  Local advice was that DoFA did not want us to be apprised of the necessity and complexity of providing project documentation prior to our arrival, as the extent of bureaucratic processes has scared other INGOs away.
  • As part of these “project documents”, DoFA asked us to include a budget item for “… necessary administrative expenses for DoFA’s related officials”. They advised we should allow $US200 per month for the 36 months of the project – ostensibly for office running costs but also known internationally as ‘facilitation’ payments!!  This is disappointing, as this cost was not advised to us until after the MOU signing ceremony, plus MiVAC is here to help as a charity with limited funding.  Facilitation payments are illegal under Australian law – which also applies to MiVAC’s overseas operations.
  • We could reasonably expect that there may be a number of further facilitation payments requested from each of the various approving Departments to smooth through our documentation.
  • My original design data was recorded in 2018, so I requested updates on population numbers by each sub-village. After six meetings in Ba Tang, I basically had six differing sets of data.  For example, one set of numbers of population numbers dropped from 205 to 47 in meetings two weeks apart.  I needed accurate population numbers with which to calculate water tank volumes and pipeline diameters.  Without accurate data, I cannot complete these designs so that they meet the needs of each sub-village.
  • Initial advice provided to Peter Perry by the Ba Tang Commune representative was that Khe Pay and then Khe Plo were their priorities, as Khe Pay was the poorest, fasted growing and had the worst water. To ensure accountability, we requested several times for the Commune to give us this in writing.  It did not happen.
  • At a further meeting on 27 March – held at my request – with the Ba Tang Commune Peoples Committee Chairman and Secretary, as well as seven of the main village leaders, we again tried to get accurate data, with very limited success.
  • Very recent examples of the fluctuating population data (provided only 2 weeks apart), even after the previous 5 meetings, is as follows:

    Village Data provided 23 March 2023 Data provided 6 April 2023
    (2 weeks later)
    Ba Tang 1 68 houses; 373 people 16 houses; 83 people
    Ba Long 8 13 houses; 60 people 52 houses; 220 people
    Loa 1 78 houses; 329 people 25 houses; 151 people

It is clearly obvious that I still had no consistent data on which to base my water tank and pipeline designs.

  • At this same meeting, the Ba Tang Commune Peoples Committee Chairman then produced a detailed map showing planned wind turbine locations which overlay Khe Pay and Khe Plo. We had no prior knowledge of this wind turbine project, or its implications for our WASH project.  Clearly, the Ba Tang Commune Peoples Committee had had this map for some time but chose not to disclose it until now. And DoFA also did not advise us about this significant wind turbine project – which would have a major impact on our project.  The construction of these turbines will require the delay of any work on our water supplies to Khe Pay and Khe Plo systems until after turbine construction has been completed, as major road construction will need to be undertaken, heavy vehicular traffic will be moving through the areas, as well as the unknown locations for service connections for the turbines will make it not viable to lay out any water piping.  We then understood why the Commune were not willing to endorse Khe Pay and Khe Plo as priority systems even though they did just a few weeks previously.  The reasons behind the initial priority have not changed.
  • As Khe Pay and Khe Plo were not viable at this time, once (or if?) we received accurate data, I would need to undertake a design review of the Khe Klong system, then re-calculate all costings, and would then have submit a revised Funding Application to our main donor.
  • Other lesser challenges which exemplified the bureaucratic processes included:
    • A very long and detailed process to establish our bank accounts.
    • Over two hours in the bank and with over 30 signatures to transfer cash back to our main donor.
    • The requirement to apply for a Border Pass for any foreigner who wished to enter the border zone at Ba Tang. This process took almost 2 weeks, even though DoFA had been advised of the names and dates months prior to our arrival.  Extra costs for expediting were charged with us even having to supply copies of our passports showing a clear print of our entry stamps.

[My border pass and passport were actually physically checked in the Ba Tang area.]

  • The office building owner, in addition to the Rental Contract with MiVAC, was required to create a separate “Contract” with the District Peoples Committee – again, taking time.
  • I was required to be registered with the District Peoples Committee as a “temporary resident”. The local police chief even came to our office one day to check up on me and my details.

Rather than assisting us, we felt that government departments or their bureaucratic processes were hindering us.  Certainly, the Ba Tang Commune Peoples Committee did not appear willing or able to help us.  There appeared an almost total lack of Vietnamese engagement – which is very sad, considering the many visits and discussions we had with government officials and the Ba Tang Commune Peoples Committee since January 2018.

MiVAC tried to resolve the issues, but officials kept saying they were bound by Decree 80 which appeared to us as an excuse for making things difficult for us.  Many meetings were held without satisfactory resolution.

All of the above challenges lead to the decision by the MiVAC Board to terminate the project as we found the working relationships to be untenable.

A reputable local businessperson in Khe Sanh advised us that while the villagers would want the water supplies, government officials would be non-caring as there was “nothing in it for them”.  We believe that this is the most accurate statement that we have heard to date.

I wrapped the project up with our main donor, the Kadoorie Charitable Foundation, who were understanding of the issues we faced, and supported our decision to terminate the project, acknowledging that we were thus no able to help provide water to the villagers. I also sold-off the furniture, cancelled leases and contracts and was forced to terminate our 2 local staff members. It was a very sad ending to our project.