Hydropower neither clean nor cheap: Vietnam urged to rethink dams

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Workers try to fix a leak in the Song Tranh 2 hydropower dam in the central province of Quang Nam

A recent report by the Center for Water Resources Conservation and Development says there are a whopping 7,500 hydropower projects being in operation across Vietnam. The social and environmental impacts of this massive network have not been taken seriously by the authorities so far, but they can only be ignored at the nation's peril, experts and activists say.

The country, which relies on hydropower for about 40 percent of its electricity, has seen controversy rage over many projects cracks at the Song Tranh 2 dam in the central province of Quang Nam and the collapse of part of the Dak Mek 3 dam in the Central Highlands province of Kon Tum. Conservationists and local authorities are opposing two projects planned in the UNESCO-recognized Dong Nai Biosphere Reserve in southern Vietnam.

Dr. Pham Hong Giang, chairman of the Vietnam National Commission on Large Dam and Water Resources Development, and Nguyen Huu Thien, an independent expert who joined the 2011 study on dams on the Mekong River of the Mekong River Commission, tell Vietweek it is time Vietnam recognized that hydropower is not clean energy and exert stringent controls over these projects. 

Vietweek: What's the biggest mistake Vietnam has made in the development of hydropower?

Pham Hong Giang: Vietnam's hydropower development has made many mistakes in every part of the process, from planning to construction management. Plans have been approved without careful consideration, and supervision of construction has been loose, right from the designing stage to the actual building activities.

Big state-owned projects have been conducted quite well with assistance from foreign experts, but many small ones have been carried out in a hurry with almost no checks.  In other countries, nobody but people with certifiable experience and expertise can manage a hydropower project. However, in Vietnam, anyone can do it.

We have also taken lightly or even ignored the impacts of changes in the water flow on the environment and on people's lives in lowland areas.

After the recent spate of accidents/incidents with hydropower projects, what are the corrective measures needed?

We need to correct our policies and frameworks, the selection of investors and other human resources.

It is necessary that the set of safety standards for hydropower dams be adjusted to become clearer. The management of dams and their safety is a specialized field, so people in charge have to be trained seriously and must be experienced. No one engages in hydropower works without knowledge and experience.

Most of the recent accidents have happened at private investors' hydropower plants, showing what results from inexperience, not to mention carelessness and disregard for the local people affected by the project. Take the investor of the Dak Mek 3 hydropower plant, for example. It is extremely irrational to say that a truck crashed into the dam and broke it. How can such a thing happen unless the dam was built very sloppily and carelessly?

It is important to develop hydropower, given that other energies are running out. It is also reasonable to diversify the investment sources for hydropower, but we need to improve management and control.

In my opinion, we need to end the situation where anyone can undertake a hydropower project. Besides reviewing hydropower planning, and scrapping stagnant and ineffective projects, the Ministry of Industry and Trade needs to draft standards for selecting capable investors, in terms of experience and financial capacity, for hydropower projects.

There is no need to build thousands of hydropower dams with many producing just a few megawatts. Instead, it is necessary to learn from the experiences of countries which are planning to improve the output of existing hydropower plants with advanced technologies.

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Not so clean 

Is hydropower a clean energy as it has always been maintained?

Nguyen Huu Thien: A study by the Canadian University of Alberta shows that the greenhouse gases released by hydropower reservoirs account for about 7 percent of the emissions that cause global warming. The South Asia Network on Dams, River and People says that every year, big dams in India discharge a total of some 45.8 million tons of methane, or 19 percent of the total amount of the gas discharged by that large country. Patrick McCully, director of the International Rivers Network, has said policymakers have disregarded the importance of methane from hydropower dams.

Moreover, hydropower works usually lead to the destruction of forests through various ways those lost at the dam's location, those submerged in the reservoir, those destroyed for the construction of wiring, and those logged by communities who are relocated and lose land (forced to log to survive).

So hydropower is not a clean energy.

But is it an easily available and cheap source of energy?

Actually, scientists have proved that hydropower causes considerable damage to the environment and society. Dams change water and soil environments, affect aquaculture and agriculture, and cause numerous bad influences because of the changes in natural water currents. However, it is difficult to calculate these damages in terms of money, because the damages are not restricted to those that take place on site, but include those that happen in a very big area, with the poor suffering the most.

Hydropower is only cheap for investors, because investors only pay main costs construction, operation, and relocations and usually do not pay other costs that the society and the environment have to incur.

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