Lawmakers lambast new dam plan as unsafe

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Plans to build a new hydropower plant in the northern province of Lai Chau contain serious safety flaws and the project could prove disastrous for local communities, legislators said Friday.

National Assembly representative Le Van Hoc from the Central Highlands Province of Lam Dong said project planners had failed to explain how the dam would prevent flooding or landslides in the area. They had also neglected to account for how water discharged from the dam during flooding would affect local residents, said Hoc.

He also added that there had apparently been no thought put into how the plant would be able to sustain massive inflows if accidents occurred at hydropower plants upstream in China. Several assemblymen worried that just one dam breach along the same water source in China could spark a disastrous "domino effect."

"What will the plants do if all 11 Chinese hydropower dams break upstream?" said Hoc's counterpart Nguyen Dinh Xuan from the southern province of Tay Ninh.

Tran Dinh Long, vice chairman of the National Assembly Law Committee, said safety must be put first and the possibility of natural disasters must be considered thoroughly. "No matter how high the cost might be, we have to choose the safest plan."

Pham Le Thanh, general director of the plant's main investor, Electricity of Vietnam (EVN), said at the Friday session that his company had studied Chinese dams and determined that they would never break at the same time.

But during another assembly session last week, Vo Minh Thuc, member of the Central Committee for Flood and Storm Control, said the government should reconsider carefully the plan to build the new Lai Chau plant as the Chinese reservoirs could endanger the Vietnamese plant with discharges of huge volumes of water even if the dams didn't break.

However, Thanh said on Friday that a breach in China was only likely to occur at the Tukahe dam, 13 kilometers from the Vietnamese border, which contained 78 million cubic meters of water. "The Lai Chau dam could receive that extra amount," he said.

He said water from the Chinese dam would flow at 13,000 cubic meters a second but the Lai Chau dam was designed to discharge 25,400 cubic meters a second.

Deputy Kieu Huu Binh from the northern province of Ha Nam immediately countered Thanh, saying that if a massive breach did occur in China, the Lai Chau dam could incur an onslaught of up to 10.7 billion cubic meters of water in a very short time, according to a Tuoi Tre report published Saturday.

Thanh also said that the project was designed to resist earthquakes. He cited studies done this year which determined that earthquakes around the dam were likely to reach only 5.7-7 on the Richter scale while the plant was designed to survive 9.0 magnitude earthquakes.

However Nghiem Vu Khai, vice chairman of the Science, Technology and Environment Committee, told Thanh Nien on the sidelines of the session that even if the plant might sustain severe earthquakes, its investors and their consultants still needed to calculate the damage caused if flooding were to occur at the same time as an earthquake or other natural disasters.

Khai said he was also concerned about forest loss as the construction of Lai Chau would clear more than 39 square kilometers of forest by 2016.

"It's important to think about flooding in that vast area," he said.

He said forests retain soil and water and that without forests, soil and silt will quickly fill up the dam. He said sufficient forest area was the key to a dam's long-term survival.

"Forests are considered the pillar of hydropower plants but none of the projects [in Vietnam] have included planting or protecting forests."

The dam, the third on the Da River after Hoa Binh and Son La, will lower surrounding groundwater levels and limit water supply for farmland in the delta, said Khai.

Dam permits revoked

Quang Nam Province in the central region has revoked licenses for nine hydropower plants, four of them for being ineffective and five because they are located in a nature reserve.

Dinh Van Thu, vice chairman of the province People's Committee, said in a note this week that the five plants located in the Thanh River nature reserve must be "cleared" to protect the environment.

Thu said the province will take similar action on more plants if necessary. "We're determined not to carry out any project that proves unnecessary or ineffective," he said.

The provincial government has also sent notes to the Ministry of Industry and Trade and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, asking for guidelines on operating the dam complex on the Vu Gia-Thu Bon river system to prevent negative impacts.

Unofficial statistics show that around 100 hydropower power projects, big and small, are being constructed on the river system. The six plants already in operation have cleared more than 2,000 hectares of forest.

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