Spare Dong Nai River, activists plead

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Two dams planned on the southern river would make a bad pollution situation worse, they argue

A man fishing on a tributary of the Dong Nai River, which supplies water to millions in southern Vietnam. Experts have warned against pollution due to illegal discharge of untreated wastewater of a state-owned company and even more environment impacts due to two hydropower plants that are to be built upstream.

The Dong Nai River and riparian communities have suffered enough.

It is time to prioritize and focus on saving the river now.

This is the message activists are pushing as concerned ministries make green claims and try to allay fears of drastic social and environmental impacts of two dams planned on the Dong Nai River.

The activists' appeal has gained urgency as news broke last week about yet another company discharging large volumes of untreated, toxic industrial effluents directly into the river for many years.

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung on July 21 signed a decision on power development by 2020 that seeks to boost the development of alternative energy sources and reducing reliance on hydropower.

Under the plan, power plants in Vietnam would have a total capacity of 75,000 megawatts, of which hydropower would constitute 23.1 percent. The proportion is much lower than 37.6 percent in 2009 and 40 percent in 2010.

On Monday, the Minister of Industry and Trade, Vu Huy Hoang, affirmed that the government is yet to approve a controversial plan to build the hydropower plants Dong Nai 6 and Dong Nai 6A near Cat Tien National Park. 

His ministry and the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development are still studying the plan, he said.

Conservationists fear that the two planned dams would totally transform the aquatic environments in the 72,000-hectare park, which straddles Dong Nai, Binh Phuoc and Lam Dong provinces.

In 2007, the Duc Long Gia Lai Corporation had requested permission to invest in the VND5.7 trillion (US$273.7 million) project with a total capacity of 241 megawatts to produce almost a billion kilowatt hours per year.

Bui Phap, the corporation chairman, said the hydropower plants' impact on the ecosystem would be "little and acceptable" when compared to the economic benefits.

"We are committed to reforesting and the area will be larger than the area lost so as to mitigate impacts on the area's fauna and flora," he told Thanh Nien in a recent interview.

However, experts said that the hydropower plants would have dire impacts on riparian communities and the environment if they are constructed on Dong Nai the country's largest endogenous river which supplies water for around 15 million inhabitants in the south.

"Hydropower plants will surely occupy land, including forest land, for the reservoir and bring about harmful consequences to the environment and ecosystem besides economic profit," the Vietnam Association for Conservation of Nature and Environment quoted To Van Truong, a specialist in water resource and environment, as saying.

He also said the project's occupation of forestland in the Cat Tien National Park, which is a UNESCO heritage site, is a "sensitive issue."

Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia Program Director with the US-based environment NGO International Rivers said that excessive dam building and pollution in the Dong Nai River basin "has reached an alarming level."

"Given the importance of the river in terms of biodiversity and its socio-economic value, the government should prioritize the environmental protection of the river. Dams that are planned should be reconsidered and those that are underway should be reassessed," she told Thanh Nien Weekly via email. 

Trandem called for urgent and proper environmental and social impact assessments as well as strict wastewater management.

"The planned Dong Nai 6 and Dong Nai 6A projects are particularly worrisome, as they will inundate 327 hectares of forest land in the Cat Tien National and its buffer zone, thus threatening biodiversity and rare and endangered wildlife. Rather than build these devastating projects, more sustainable energy options should be studied and prioritized," she said.

Julian Newman, campaign director of the UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency, said that Vietnam obviously needs to ensure energy supplies for a rapidly growing economy. However, he said hydropower should not become the sole focus at the expense of developing alternatives.

"Environmental and health costs are usually totally ignored by the companies carrying out the hydropower projects. So these firms make money from the power generated, but do not have to pay for the environmental and social costs," he said.

"It is important that the government of Vietnam does not just chase GDP growth at the expense of its environment, as this will have long term consequences for the country," he added.

On a nationwide scale, Jake Brunner, program coordinator for Vietnam with the global environment network International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN), said private investors already "dammed" the country with hydropower plants.

"It's too late. The binge is over.  Private sector participation in dam construction far outstripped the government's capacity to plan or regulate it. Vietnam is now one of the world's most "˜dammed' countries in terms of the proportion of its hydropower potential that has been exploited," Brunner said. 

Polluted to death

Even as the controversy over dams on the Dong Nai River rages, environmental police last Thursday caught the state-owned Sonadezi Corporation red handed discharging untreated waste into the river in the eponymous province.

After finding smelly sewage flowing from the sluice gates of the company's waste treatment facility into the river, police raided the plant and discovered that the waste treatment system was not working, and untreated waste was being discharged directly through three underground pipelines into a ditch that ran into the river.

Tran Quang Thoa, the company's deputy general director, and three operators of its waste treatment plant, admitted to playing a part.

The plant has signed contracts to treat sewage for 42 companies in the Long Thanh Industrial Zone, Senior Lieutenant-Colonel Cu Nam Tien of the Environment Police Department told Thanh Nien.

It is estimated that the plant has discharged around 14 trillion liters of sewage into the Dong Nai River over the last five years, he added.

In 2009, the company was fined a combined VND34 million (US$1,650) for dumping excessive sewage (two to five times higher than the allowed amount) by provincial authorities.

On Monday, eleven households in the southern province of Dong Nai lodged complaints against Sonadezi for damaging their seafood farms.

A local source said another 100 households are calculating their damages before taking similar action.

Police are still investigating the plant's waste treatment process and testing sewage samples before issuing charges against the company.

IUCN's Brunner said he was not surprised by the fact that the company causing pollution is state-owned. 

"The dirtiest and most polluting companies in Vietnam are nearly always state owned," Brunner said. "That's because the government is both owner and regulator and since the future of state officials depends on economic not environmental performance, they have no incentive to regulate their own companies properly."

However, he said the Dong Nai River can recover if timely actions are taken by governmental agencies.

"Despite the enormous pollution load, if it is well protected, the Dong Nai River will recover. Nature has an incredible capacity to regenerate.  The Thames that flows through London was once biologically dead; now it's home to salmon," he said. 

"The same can happen in Vietnam, but not under current industrial policy."

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