Vietnam advisory agency calls for making Central Highlands off limits for new hydropower plants

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A small house built in Lam Dong Province by a family of four that has not got a home to relocate from the builders of the Dong Nai 3 hydropower plant. Photo courtesy of Tuoi Tre

A government advisory agency has recommended that hydropower plants should not be built in the Central Highlands for at least two years to save the region from further damage.

The Central Highlands Steering Committee said hydropower dams have caused "large" impacts on the life of people in the five provinces in the region, most of them ethnic minorities.

"They have flooded many forests, destroyed the ecological balance, changed the flow of waters, and shrunk people's living spaces," the committee said in a statement quoted by Tuoi Tre newspaper Wednesday.

The Central Highlands has the largest number of hydropower plants approved in the country -- 485 with a total capacity of nearly 10,000 megawatts; 118 having been built and 75 under construction.

The committee said 25 large projects, including some being built, had acquired over 68,195 hectares of land and affected the lives of more than 25,700 people, displacing nearly 7,000.

Hydropower plants have acquired a stigma since they leave local people and authorities with problems to resolve for years afterwards, including complaints over late compensation payment, it said.

Several plants disrupt local cultivation activities, and their discharge cycle damages crops by causing water shortage in the dry season and floods in the rainy season, it said.

Builders of the Dong Nai 3 hydropower plant in Dak Nong Province, with a capacity of 180 MW, were responsible for providing new cultivation lands for 432 displaced families, but have done so for only half of them.

They also owe VND13.4 billion (US$632,000) in compensation.

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The 75-MW Dam Bri hydropower plant in Lam Dong Province is complete but can only begin operating after paying a local company for damaging 50 hectares of tea gardens.

The province said during a visit by the committee officials last month that it has scrapped 28 small projects and asked the Ministry of Industry and Trade to call off 23 others under its jurisdiction.

Tran Viet Hung, one of the visiting officials, said permission for hydropower plants should be given with caution given the region's "vulnerability."

"Although it has high potential for generating power, it is also a sensitive location in terms of geostrategy, natural resources, landscapes, and ethnic culture."

Dak Lak Province has also canceled 20 projects while Gia Lai scrapped 11 and shut down eight operating plants.

PetroVietnam's Dak D'rinh plant in Dak Lak has left 217 families with young children living in makeshift tents since the dam is set to store water in a month though homes for the displaced are only half finished.

The committee said deforestation is another problem, "an alarming" one, with local authorities unable to find land to grow new forests and plant builders have no forestry management capacity.

Only 757.3 hectares, or 3.33 percent of the 22,770 hectares of forests lost, have been replanted.

The committee said investors focus only on power generation and not on environmental and social impacts or local people's interests.

"It seems like the social cost of these hydropower plants has been too large."

Authorities in Quang Nam Province bordering the region to the north also announced earlier this month that the central government has ratified its proposal to cancel 18 hydropower projects.

Last year too it had canceled several small projects since they do not offer much benefit but cause as much damage as large ones.

Vietnam relies on hydropower for about 40 percent of its electricity.

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