Vietnam lawmakers urge public hearing on Mekong dams

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Big money behind push for lower Mekong hydropower projects

Farmers walk through a dried-up rice field in Thailand's Baan Nard village, Nongkhai Province. The detrimental impact of dams planned on mainstream Mekong far outweighs its benefits, a study says.

The National Assembly should host a public hearing on Mekong mainstream dams because it is crunch time for one of the world's greatest river basins, lawmakers and experts have said.

They said the parliament's environment committee should bring together experts, developers, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to testify on the impacts of the 12 dams proposed for the Lower Mekong Basin.

"At a conference last Sunday [November 7], many legislators and experts proposed holding the hearing but we have not worked out detailed plans yet," said Nguyen Dinh Xuan, a member of the parliamentary Committee for Science, Technology, and Environment.

Xuan said that the proposed Mekong mainstream dams pose massive environmental, economic and social risks that warrant serious dialogue and debate. "We are trying to convene the hearing before it's too late."

Despite the benefit of being able to import power, Vietnam is likely to experience overall economic loss due to the damage the dams would inflict on the Mekong Delta's productivity in agriculture, fisheries and aquaculture, according to a recently released study.

The Strategic Environment Assessment (SEA) report, commissioned by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) and released on October 15, recommends that countries in the lower Mekong River region delay any decisions about building hydropower dams for ten years because of the manifold risks involved.

The report's release came after the Laotian government had notified the MRC of its intention to approve construction of the first mainstream dam on the Lower Mekong. MRC members Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Laos will have until March to reach consensus on whether or not to build the 1,260- megawatt Xayaboury dam. Until now, no dams have been built on mainstream Mekong after it flows out of China.

The livelihood of more than 60 million people depends on the 4,000-kilometer river that originates in Tibetan plateau and flowing through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam before emptying into the East Sea.

Mounting concern over the Xayaboury dam has prompted Vietnamese legislators and experts to urge the National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature, to hold a hearing on this "serious matter", lawmaker Xuan said.

He hoped that after the hearing, appropriate measures will be taken to protect the delta.

"A fertile and prosperous Mekong Delta would not only benefit Vietnam, but the entire world."

"˜Irreparable harm'

The proposed dams have also faced opposition from international financial institutions and other nations like the US.

The World Bank endorsed the MRC report and announced in October that it would not fund any Mekong dams.

On October 27, Senator Jim Webb, a Democrat from Virginia and the current chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific, called on US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to withdraw funding for the MRC if the planned dam in Laos goes ahead without meeting international standards. The MRC depends on international aid from the World Bank, the US, Australia, Denmark, Finland, France, Japan and Sweden, among others.

Arriving in Hanoi for a meeting of the Lower Mekong Initiative program two days later, Clinton said there should be "a pause" before further action on the issue.

But the role of the MRC in this regard has already attracted controversy.

Milton Osborne, a Sydney-based independent writer and consultant on Asian issues, said the SEA report "calls into question the [ ... ] remarks over the last several months of the MRC's chief executive officer, who on several occasions has spoken as if the construction of some dams on the river was certain."

"The report is [also] in direct opposition to the commercial interests that wish to build the dams and to the announced support for such dams from the governments of Laos and Cambodia," Osborne wrote in a posting on the website of the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based independent international policy think tank.

Osborne said that the MRC is not in a position to tell Laos or Cambodia what to do, and what happens to Mekong ultimately rests with the riparian countries.

"Will the Lao and Cambodian governments ignore the SEA [report]? The fear must be that one or both will do so, and in doing so cause irreparable harm."

Dam builders' interests

The SEA report states that all 12 mainstream dams would represent between 6 to 8 percent of projected energy demand in the Lower Mekong region by 2025.

This means they would make up 4.4 percent of Vietnam's national power demand and 11.6 percent of that of Thailand by then.

The report also states that hydropower generation on mainstream Mekong is less significant for the power sectors of Thailand and Vietnam, the two major consumers of electricity from these projects.

"Taken in this context, the tradeoffs are enormous in the proposition to dam the mainstream, since the impacts would be massive, and yet the projects themselves would not contribute significantly to the region's energy security," said Aviva Imhof, campaign director of International Rivers, a US-based NGO which seeks to protect rivers and defend the rights of communities that depend on them.

Nguyen Ngoc Tran, former vice chair of the National Assembly's Foreign Affairs Committee, said the economic benefits of the projects would accrue mostly to the private developers and contractors building the projects.

Many lawmakers have concurred that if Vietnam opted to pull out of the power deals, the dam projects will lose steam.

But in order to convince other neighboring countries to follow suit, Vietnam should exhibit its determination to say no to any dam development.

"If Vietnamese developers have a stake in any dam development project, in Vietnam or elsewhere, we will not be in the position to advise other countries against dam constructions," said Xuan, the lawmaker.


A hydropower company has rejected charges that it caused massive flooding early this month in the Central Highlands.

Meanwhile, local farmers say they are prepared to file a lawsuit, seeking compensation for more than eight square kilometers of ruined farmland.

Nguyen Trong Oanh, director of the Da Nhim Ham Thuan Da Mi Hydropower Company, told Thanh Nien on Monday, November 8, that the company hadn't violated procedures at the Da Nhim plant about 40 kilometers outside Da Lat Town in the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong.

 "We must be aware that the flood was also caused by heavy downpours, apart from the reservoir's discharge," Oanh said. "A discharge of 800 cubic meters per second is considered safe."

On Monday, the Lam Dong Province Farmers' Association asked the hydropower firm to compensate it for damages they say were caused by the company's reckless efforts to protect its own dam.

Tran Duy Viet, chairman of Lam Dong Province Farmers' Association, sent an official request to Da Nhim - Ham Thuan Da Mi Hydropower, on Monday.

Viet said that water discharged by the Da Nhim reservoir (at a volume of more than 500 cubic meters per second) had destroyed 188 hectares of rice paddies and 640 hectares of other farmland in the low lying portions of Don Duong and Duc Trong districts early this month.

Viet added that they would file a lawsuit against the hydropower firm if it rejected the request.

Heavy downpours have triggered floods in the central region since October 30. By November 10, 29 people had died and two were missing. The floods damaged more than 34,000 houses and forced more than 10,000 residents to evacuate their homes.

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