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VIETNAM: Doubts about Small Dams Give Gov’t Headaches

Tran Dinh Thanh Lam

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam, Sep 13 2009 (IPS) - With a generating capacity of only 190 megawatts, the Dak Mi 4 hydropower project being constructed in the central Vietnamese province of Quang Nam is small by international standards.

But it is causing major headaches for the Vietnamese government.

The construction of the dam has been provoking fierce opposition from local residents, who complain that it will divert the flow of water from one river, the Vu Gia, into another, the Thu Bon. This, they argued, would prevent the natural flow of water to the large coastal city of Da Nang.

In late August, the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) in the capital Hanoi rejected a petition from Da Nang People’s Committee calling for the project to be halted, saying it would not undermine water supply, as many feared.

The petition claimed that the 269 million-U.S.-dollar dam project would seriously impact the flow of water to the coastal city, and “would leave us (Da Nang) without enough fresh water”.

The Vu Gia-Thu Bon river system originates in the Truong Son mountain range in the west of central Vietnam, and provides fresh water to a host of lowland areas and local communities.

Construction of the Dak Mi 4 plant began in 2007 and is expected to wrap up in 2010.

The conflict over the dam is illustrative of wider concerns about how to balance environmental preservation and hydropower development in a country like Vietnam, whose GDP grew by an average 7.6 percent from 2000 to 2007. While this figure has slowed due to the global financial crisis, GDP growth for 2009, is projected to be at 4.5 percent and to recover in the next years.

While some dam projects, such as the 2,700-mw Son La dam in north Vietnam are massive, most of the hydropower projects in the country are small scale, generating between 10 to 30 mw.

Sixty-eight mainly small-scale hydropower projects of various sizes are planned for construction on rivers in Quang Nam province alone, including the Vu Gia-Thu Bon rivers. Others are being built or are being planned for other waterways across the country.

Officially, these projects are being built to meet the growing demand for power in Vietnam, which outstrips supply, particularly in the hot season. The government puts the growth in demand for electricity at 15 percent a year, and Vietnam imports power across the border from neighbouring China.

Vietnam’s concerns are such that the government plans to have its first nuclear power plant in five years and to draw 10 percent of power from nuclear sources by 2030.

But cases like the Dak Mi project have also spurred some discussion of different ways of managing this demand and evaluating the impact of the construction of dams, even small ones.

For instance, Nguyen Quoc An, assistant to the president of the Association of Energy of Vietnam, says the total energy generated by small-scale hydropower plants remains insignificant compared to national needs.

This is because these plants mainly operate in the rainy season when there is less demand of electricity. “Investing into small-scale hydropower plants at the present time might not be the best option,” he told IPS.

Many investors of hydropower plants in Northern Lao Cai province have already found it hard to sell their product to Energy of Vietnam (EVN), the sole buyer of electricity in Vietnam, An said.

Their plants are located too far from the national grid, and they do not have the financial capacity to build transmission lines that connect to these to consumers.

But trade ministry officials have stated that the power sector is keen to make full use of the country’s water resources and wean Vietnam off its overdependence on power generated from coal and gas.

“In many other countries, up to 80 to 90 percent of energy is generated from hydropower,” Dr Ho Sy Du, director of the hydroelectricity department at the Hanoi College of Irrigation, told ‘Saigon Marketing Weekly’ magazine.

“In Vietnam, we have just used 30 to 40 percent (hydropower). Therefore we must use much more (hydropower) in the future,” he said. Some 60 percent of Vietnam’s energy is from gas and coal.

Still, in a concession to the Da Nang commune’s position, industry and trade ministry officials said they had asked investors in the Dak Mi project to calculate how much water the river would actually supply to Da Nang when it is completed.

Elsewhere, plans to develop dams in different parts of the country remain in place. The mountainous northern province of Lao Cai reports having 21 hydropower plants planned with a total capacity of 465 megawatts.

Investors in small-scale hydropower plants are not required to submit environmental impact assessment reports for central government approval, making it easier for these projects to get underway. They only need to have their projects approved by commune or village authorities.

In the balancing act that countries like Vietnam need to do at a time when many hydropower projects in different parts of the Mekong region are underway, analysts grant that dams are often seen as a cleaner source of energy than coal or nuclear power.

But they say that ill-conceived small-scale projects can still cause major harm to the environment, adding that the culmulative impact of more than one project on the same river also raises other concerns.

The construction of the Dak Mi 4 hydropower dam and the other projects planned for the Vu Gia-Thu Bon rivers are a case in point.

“The construction of so many hydropower plants on the same river will affect the flow of water downstream,” said Huynh Van Thang, vice chief of Da Nang’s Agriculture and Rural Development Department.

Severe droughts and encroaching seawater into lowland areas are among the adverse effects of several poorly conceived hydropower plants built along the river system, he said. “It’s not good enough only to evaluate the impacts of each hydro-power plant on a section of a river,” Ruth Matthews of the World Wildlife Fund, told local reporters on the sidelines of recent workshop on management of the Vu Gia-Thu Bon river basin. “The entire river basin must be studied so that planners and officials have a comprehensive view about the cumulative impacts of all the projects on a river,” Matthews added.

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