Cat Tien gets rid of Dam-ocles's sword

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Cancel all hydropower projects, switch to alternative energy, experts urge

Deputies from the National Assembly's Science, Technology and Environment Committee inspect the site of a proposed hydropower dam in Cat Tien National Park in April 2013. Photo by Kim Cuong

Ending two years of contentious debate, proponents of two controversial dams in a protected national park in south Vietnam have thrown in the towel.

In its latest report to the national legislature, the Ministry of Industry and Trade has said that it has canceled both hydropower projects planned to be built in the Cat Tien National Park.

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The ministry's report on hydropower plant development, submitted to the National Assembly during its ongoing session, does not include Dong Nai 6 and Dong Nai 6A, which were proposed by the agriculture ministry in June 2011. De-listing them in the report is the equivalent of cancelation.

Late last month, Deputy Prime Minister Hoang Trung Hai, former Minister of Industry and Trade, had received a report from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment on the likely environmental impacts of the dams.

The report said the dams would destroy more than 327 hectares (808 acres) of forest including 128 hectares of the Cat Tien National Park in Dong Nai Province northeast of Ho Chi Minh City, and badly affect the Bau Sau (Crocodile Lake) wetlands inside the park, as also the flow of the Dong Nai River, which is the longest one that flows entirely within Vietnam and a major water source for the south of the country.

Bau Sau has been listed on the Ramsar list of wetlands, which now has more than 2,110 sites worldwide. The list is based on the Ramsar Convention, an agreement between 165 member governments on the sustainable use of wetlands.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature had also urged UNESCO to put pressure on the removal of the dams as Cat Tien, which is home to around 1,700 precious plants and more than 700 species of animals and birds, several of which are endangered, is a UNESCO world biosphere reserve.

Eleven ethnic minority groups live around the park.

Dong Nai officials earlier this year also sent petitions to the government objecting to the dams. UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere Program had last year sought the province's help in stopping the construction.

Besides the two high-profile dams, the ministry also announced the scrapping of 422 other projects with a total capacity of more than 1,174 MW, citing low economic returns and high social and environmental risks.

It also halted work on 294 other projects until at least after 2015.

That leaves 815 projects, including 268 current operational that are generating 14,240 MW, and 205 pending that are to be put into use by 2017 to generate a further 6,200 MW.

Vietnam depends on hydropower plants to meet up to 40 percent of its electricity demand.

Dangerous

Besides the 294 projects that have been halted, many existing hydropower dams nationwide are considered unsafe, based on relevant criteria and requirements.

Phan Xuan Dung, chairman of the National Assembly's Science, Technology and Environment Committee that assessed the report, said the cracks and leaks found at the Song Tranh 2 Hydropower Dam in Quang Nam has affected the lives of local residents as well as the project's operations.

"The government has been actively instructing relevant agencies to facilitate repair works and re-assess its safety and capacity to withstand earthquakes," he said. "Currently, the prime minister is yet to allow the reservoir to store water."

The house committee said there have been "limitations" in the quality of exploring, designing, constructing and supervising several dams.

Meanwhile, existing regulations were insufficient to punish violations by investors and other parties, it said.

Dung said safety precautions have not been taken for many small hydropower dams, with 66 percent not having approved protection plans and 55 percent having no plan to deal with storms and floods.

Although the two hydropower projects in Dong Nai have been cancelled, Dung said the role of relevant individuals and entities the projects should be clarified to avoid damage and losses to stakeholders.

Over the past 11 years, the Duc Long Gia Lai company has spent much money in pursuing the project, on suspect feasibility studies and environment impact assessments.

Positive signs

Many scientists and environmentalists have hailed the move to cancel the two hydropower projects in Dong Nai, saying Vietnam should go further and halt all new hydropower projects.

Vu Ngoc Long, director of the Southern Institute of Ecology, said he had opposed the projects from the very beginning.

"Some scientist and I have suffered a lot of pressure. Not all scientists dare to overcome such pressure to fight for the overall benefit (of society) and protect the environment," the Sai Gon Tiep Thi (Saigon Marketing) newspaper quoted Long as saying.

"In the case of Dong Nai 6 and Dong Nai 6A, we had the strength of the public and NGOs. It is a positive sign when the fight for the good is recognized," he said.

Mai Thanh Dung, director of the Environment Impact Assessment Department under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, said all hydropower projects damage the environment.

"There have been many projects that have been approved despite the severe environmental damage they would cause, including destroying protected forests. It was a trade-off due to the nation's socio-economic situation."

He said currently, Vietnam was not experiencing any serious power shortage while there are possibilities to develop other, alternative power projects or buy electricity from other countries.

"Many other countries in the world have abandoned further hydropower development.

We should do the same."

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