A hydropower dam discharges water. Photo by Diep Duc Minh
Vietnam has decided that all future hydropower projects, irrespective of scale, will have to be approved by the Prime Minister.
The decision was announced at a Wednesday session of the National Assembly -- Vietnam's legislature, attempting to place hydropower investments under higher scrutiny.
Currently, small dams defined 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.
"All hydropower projects, regardless of sizes, are to be reported to the Prime Minister before the investment decision is made and before construction starts," Minister of Industry and Trade Vu Huy Hoang said at the ongoing house session.
As government officials spoke of the future, many legislators questioned the mess left by the large number of projects already built and approved.
They cited reports saying more than 66 percent of forests lost to hydropower plants have not been restored yet.
Deputy Danh Ut from the Mekong Delta province of Kien Giang blamed the agriculture ministry for tardiness in issuing regulations on planting forests. The ministry only did so earlier this year, Ut said, while hydropower plants have been around for several decades.
Huynh Minh Hoang from the nearby Bac Lieu Province said the surge in hydropower plants over the past ten years has resulted in a wide range of problems including flooding, dam breaks, earthquakes, forest loss and ecological destruction.
"The loose, easy regulations for approving hydropower plants have forced people and the entire environment to pay the price," Hoang said.
Nguyen Cong Binh from the northern province of Yen Bai demanded a government report that details the dams' impacts on displaced people.
Binh said more than 10,000 people among 50,000 relocated for the Thac Bac hydropower plant in the province more than 40 years ago still have no access to electricity.
"They gave up their land for power. This is an unacceptable reality."
Figures from the ministry show that more than 300,000 people have sunk into poverty and/or driven to normadic lives as their relocation homes were substandard.
Nguyen Thai Hoc from the south-central province of Phu Yen said many investors focused only on profits and paid little attention to fulfilling responsibilities they took on for getting their project approved.
Hoc also said a lot of violations by hydropower plants have been ignored, as if the investors had some special privileges.
The ministry late last month scrapped 424 planned hydropower projects with a total capacity of more than 2,000 MW, saying they would provide low economic benefits while carrying high social and environmental risks.
The canceled projects include two high-profile ones planned for Cat Tien National Park in the south.
It also halted work on 294 other projects until at least 2015.
This leaves 815 projects, including 268 that are currently operational and generating 14,240 MW. There are 205 that are set to become operational by 2017, producing a further 6,200 MW.
Vietnam depends on hydropower plants for up to 40 percent of its electricity demand.
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