Vietnam dams reviled over high death toll

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Floods submerged a rural village in Quang Nam Province's Dien Ban District on November 17. Heavy rains caused by tropical depression combined with water discharge from local hydropower dams killed 41 people and injured 74 in the central and Central Highlands regions last weekend. Photo by Hoang Son

Disgruntlement and anger over rampant construction of hydroelectric dams, simmering for many years now, has risen to a crescendo in Vietnam following the death of 41 people in the central and Central Highlands regions last weekend.

While authorities have continued to  blame heavy rains triggered by a tropical depression for flooding that caused the deaths and left 74 other people injured, many media reports have said that the flooding was compounded by the discharge of water from 15 dams in the two regions.

According to the Central and Central Highlands Center for Flood and Storm Prevention and Control, on Saturday (November 16) alone, nine of the 15 dams discharged huge amounts of water - from 600 to 2,500 cubic meters per second.

It said heavy rains had made water in the 15 dams rise high to the level 3, the highest alarm threshold, forcing operators to release water to prevent a possible breach.

As a result, residents did not have the time to cope with the massive flooding that followed the discharge.

Binh Dinh Province suffered the most with 18 people dead and one missing, the center said in a release Tuesday. It was followed by Quang Ngai with 15 dead, 73 injured and one missing.

The other provinces that lost lives were Quang Nam, Phu Yen, Gia Lai and Kon Tum.

The Voice of Vietnam Sunday cited a district official in Binh Dinh as saying authorities were not able to inform local people of the water discharge because of the power outage.

Nguyen Su, Party chief of Hoi An Town in Quang Nam Province, told the Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper hydropower dams are only good for energy production.

"I am against [hydropower dams], no matter who supports them.

"Each time a [local] dam discharges water, Hoi An has to suffer. The loss for tourism sector is terribly high."

In the dry season, the dams suck rivers dry, causing drought, he said, and in the rainy season, they discharge water, causing floods, erosion and change of current.

Ho Van Man, deputy head of the Committee for Flood Prevention and Rescue in Quang Nam Province's Dai Loc District, told Tuoi Tre the committee was informed of dams' water discharge in advance, and it had in turn informed residents.

However, not all residents received the information, he said. Many were not at home when local authorities issued the announcements, and when they got home the floods had already happened.

Man said agencies in charge of supervising hydropower dams should keep a close watch on the process of water discharge of the dams and co-ordinate the process.

"They [the dams] should discharge water early, for example, when river water reaches the levels 1 and 2.

"Do not wait until it reaches level 3."

In his district, A Vuong is the only dam that has pledged to inform the public about an impending discharge in advance through public loudspeakers, Man said.

A new government resolution last month warned that hydropower investors would be charged over VND25-30 million ($1,185-1,423) for discharging water without giving proper warning, but officials in the central region, which has a profusion of dams, said the fine was too small to change anything.

Too many negative impacts

According to official statistics, the government has scrapped 424 planned hydropower projects with a total capacity of more than 2,000 MW, saying they would yield low economic benefit while carrying high social and environmental risks.

After three years of construction, the Serepok 4A Hydropower Plant in Dak Lak Province's Buon Don District will soon become operational. Experts have voiced concern it would shrink the large Serepok River into a small stream.

The plant has attracted much public attention as the river runs through the Yok Don National Park, Vietnam's largest wildlife preserve.

According to the park management, the negative impacts the plant would have on the park's ecology are huge.

While construction was underway, vehicles, equipment and mines used to break up rocks, causing environmental pollution and high levels of noise that drove animals away, it said.

In addition, construction of the plant interfered with the flow of the Serepok River, blocking animal migration and reproduction, and changing the living environment of plants and animals.

In Quang Nam Province, residents living in Dai Loc District have complained that a series of hydropower dams on Vu Gia River have led to serious drought during the dry season and erosion during the rainy season, claiming a huge area of farming land.

They said the river had nearly run out of fish, making people's lives miserable.

Erosion is a constant nightmare for hundreds of residents in a rural hamlet in Dai Loc District's Dai An Commune, as the banks of Quang Hue River get seriously eroded each time a local dam discharges water.

Over the last three years, around 50 meters of land on the banks have been swallowed by flood waters.

Vietnam depends on hydropower plants for up to 40 percent of its electricity consumption.

Experts have said that the surge in hydropower plants over the past 10 years has resulted in a wide range of problems including flooding, dam breaches, earthquakes, forest loss and ecological destruction.

The government last week decided that all future hydropower projects, irrespective of scale, will have to be approved by the Prime Minister.

The decision was made in an attempt to place hydropower investments under higher scrutiny.

Currently, small dams, defined as those with a capacity of less than 30 MW, are approved and supervised by city/provincial governments, while larger ones fall under the purview of central government agencies.

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