Hydropower risky, at nature's mercy, warns expert

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Police officers and officials of Gia Lai Province study the scene of a hydropower dam breach that damaged more than 200 hectares of farming areas in Ia Dom Commune in June 2013

Vietnam has built scores of hydropower plants, a risky strategy since hydropower heavily depends on climate changes, Dr. Dao Trong Tu, advisor to the Vietnam River Network, tells Vietweek.

Vietweek: Some hydropower dams in the Central Highlands breached recently, raising concerns about quality, especially of smaller ones around Vietnam. What are the reasons for the apparent poor quality?

Dao Trong Tu: The problem has happened quite often recently, with 3 dam collapses occurring between October, 2012 and June, 2013. According to an assessment by the Ministry of Industry and Trade, it is due to shortcomings in the management of hydropower plants. We should review the capability of localities in assessing and approving hydropower projects.

The construction of power plants on rivers is very complicated, so relevant agencies should strictly monitor it to ensure safety. If a breach occurs, it would cause big losses to investors, the community, and the environment.

So there are many reasons for dam collapses. The Ministry of Industry and Trade has said many provinces which have hydropower projects do not have personnel with good understanding about the issue.

Another reason may be unsound design and construction, so we should strengthen surveillance over them. We should also tell investors to strictly follow quality requirements, [but] oversight of implementation is very important.

The government has recognized the issues, so it has ordered localities to stop approving some projects.

Do you think we have been lax in penalizing dam builders who fail to adhere to requirements, giving rise to safety issues?

I don't think so. Investors will suffer big losses if their projects have any problems. So it is not similar to transportation, where stringent penalization could help reduce violations of the law. It is unnecessary to award stringent penalties in the hydropower field.

According to a recent report by the National Assembly's Commission of Science, Technology and Environment, some 40 percent of medium- and small-sized dams have been removed from the hydroelectric development plan. Was the plan impracticable then?

 

Hydropower accounts for 45 percent of the total output ["¦] Since hydropower depends much on nature [and] not as stable as thermal power, the bigger the ratio of hydropower, the higher the risk the power system faces.

DAO TRONG TU, advisor to the Vietnam River Network

The hydroelectricity development plan is quite different from the urban development plan. All locations in rivers suitable for hydropower development will be incorporated in the plan. However, whether or not the projects are approved is another issue.

To approve them, relevant agencies assess their environmental impacts, design, and feasibility. The issues are not considered when the general hydroelectricity development plan is mapped out.

The most important aspect is the project assessment for approval, not the drafting of the plan. So we should not think unreasonable planning is the reason for the hydropower problems.

With more than 1,100 small projects in the development plan, do you think we have too many?

Like coal, hydroelectricity is also a resource. But hydropower development could affect the lives of many people and the community's safety. So it should be very carefully considered before approval.

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There is no problem with putting thousands of hydropower projects in the plan. The only issue is how will you tap the resource.

However, we have too many hydropower projects because 5-10 years ago many investors, including those without much knowledge of the field, rushed to build hydropower plants because of the high profits. But they would no longer find it attractive even if the government encourages them because good locations for plants have been used up.

In fact, small projects are effective in supplying power especially in remote and mountainous areas, contributing to poverty reduction. But we now have too many small hydropower plants.
Other countries strictly monitor hydropower projects. For example, the government of Thailand has had to agree to local residents' demand to shut down the Mekong River hydropower project, Pak Mun Dam, four months every year to protect the environment. Localities should reassess the safety of small hydropower plants amid the current changeable climate.

We have so many hydropower plants but still face power shortages in the dry season. And, considering their impacts on the environment, do you think that by building them we lose more than we gain?

In Vietnam, hydropower accounts for 45 percent of the total output. It is unreasonable since hydropower depends much on nature. It is not as stable as thermal power. Thus, the bigger the ratio of hydropower, the higher the risk the power system faces.
Also, everybody realizes now that hydroelectricity can both benefit the economy and hurt the environment. The government now wants to stop hydropower development since we have used up 85 percent of our potential, according to an advisor to the government. In fact, we have built hydropower projects in clusters, so it is right to stop it.

What should we do with the existing hydropower plants?

We should use existing projects to serve social development. The state has a program for assessing and supervising the projects to ensure they operate safely. The program should be carefully implemented.

But it will be difficult to deal with inefficient projects. Even if a hydropower plant is found to be ineffective, we cannot pull it down like a building.

What we can do now is strengthen oversight to ensure they operate more effectively and safely.

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