Eschew big dams, find other ways, experts advise

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Vietnam's river-systems are endangered by the profusion of dams being built

The La Nga River, a tributary of the Dong Nai River, runs dry by a hydropower dam in the La Nga Commune. (Photo by Ha Mi)

It is time for Vietnam to jettison the idea of big dams and focus on alternatives, given the havoc that existing ones are already causing, experts have said.

"It is very dangerous that the environmental and human costs of the dams are not fully projected," Tran Van Thanh, director of the Cat Tien National Park in the southern Dong Nai Province told the Saigon Tiep Thi newspaper recently.

Vietnam, which will have to bear the brunt of big dams on the Mekong River that have been and are being built upstream by China, is also suffering because of its own efforts to generate energy through big dams on its rivers.

In fact, the rivers themselves are put at risk, experts have said, citing the Dong Nai River's plight as a case in point.

On the mainstream of Dong Nai River, Vietnam's largest endogenous river which supplies water for around 15 million inhabitants in the south, nine dams have been built. On the Be River, a tributary of the Dong Nai River, there are six dams and tributary La Nga bears another five.

The damage has already been done by these dams, said Aviva Imhof, Campaigns Director of International Rivers, a US-based NGO that works to protect rivers and defend the rights of communities that depend on them.

"Construction [of the dams] has displaced thousands of people, affecting their livelihoods and ecosystems along the rivers," Imhof told Thanh Nien Weekly.

Bleak future

If all the hydropower dams on the Dong Nai River and its tributaries are completed, they will cause great impacts on the whole basin, Imhof said. Hydropower construction upstream has already destroyed more than 15,000 hectares of natural forest, she noted.

She said many more thousands of hectares of forest and residential areas will be submerged. These dams will also destroy and cause dramatic changes in the Nam Cat Tien National Park, 100 kilometers [70 miles] northeast of Ho Chi Minh City and home to numerous birds and mammals.

"Fauna and flora system in the area will be fragmented and lose their rich biodiversity," Imhof said.

She also cautioned that since there are many dams on the same river, coordination among different investors for different dams and their operating regimes becomes extremely important.

"If any damage happens to one of the dams [especially during flooding season], impacts on other dams below it and downstream areas will be immense."

At a meeting held last weekend to train Vietnamese officials and community members on how to use the World Commission on Dams guidelines, the ignorance of many dam builders was highlighted.

Some businesses have zero-knowledge about dam construction though they are investing in it, Saigon Tiep Thi reported. They were either ignorant of how to research and study their impacts on the environment or did not bother to do it, the paper added.

The World Commission on Dams has in fact noted that to secure the benefits that big dams provide, "in too many cases an unacceptable and often unnecessary price has been paid... especially in social and environmental terms, by people displaced, by communities downstream, by taxpayers and by the natural environment."

"˜The wrong solution'

"Big dams are often the wrong solution for a warming world," Imhof said.

"Vietnam would do better to investigate alternative options for meeting [its] energy needs: options that won't cripple the country in a time of drought or cause damage in a time of floods."

Imhof said there were many alternatives to building big dams in Vietnam.

"The cheapest and cleanest alternative is to invest in energy efficiency measures that can save people money and avoid the need for costly and destructive new projects," she said.

"Vietnam also has an abundance of alternative energy options such as solar, biomass from rice husks and micro-hydropower."

Each project should be evaluated on its own merits, taking into account social and environmental impacts, she said.

"We all need healthy rivers, and many thousands of people in Vietnam still depend on rivers for their livelihoods, making them highly vulnerable to changes in the river ecosystem as a result of big dams."

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