Vietnam: Rare Criticism of Dams Surface

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Originally published at IPS News

CAN THO, Nov 21 (IPS) – While arguments against the development of hydropower dams on the Mekong River and its tributaries have from time to time emerged in Vietnam’s state-controlled press, rarely have government officials been as open with their criticism as they have in recent months.

In late September, the ‘Thanh Nien’ newspaper reported the deputy secretary general of the Vietnam National Mekong Committee (VNMC), Dao Trong Tu, telling an international meeting that “the development of dams for hydroelectricity generation (on the Mekong and its tributaries) could have unforeseen negative consequences for a country like Vietnam”.

At the meeting, a regional hydropower consultation organised by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) in Vientiane, Laos, Nguyen Van Trong, deputy director of the state-run Research Institute for Agriculture said “20 million Vietnamese people in the Mekong Delta, who rely on fish for export and water for irrigation, would be negatively impacted” by dam building.

Such statements come as Vietnam itself emerges as a key player in the construction of dams in the lower Mekong River and its tributaries. Vietnamese firms are involved in the construction of several dams and are eyeing plans for several more.

“I am so happy to hear for the first time Vietnamese officials claim far and loud that hydropower dams are ruining our fisheries,” Nguyen Tu Be, a 45 year-old fisherman from Can Tho, in southern Vietnam, said when asked by IPS for a response.

Be, who has been making a living fishing on the Hau River, a tributary of the Mekong, since he was a young man, reported that his catch has fallen significantly in the last few years. “People say that the dams built upstream have prevented the fish migrating to Vietnam’s section of the Mekong,” he said.

Years ago, Vietnamese fishermen could easily catch tonnes of migrating Shutchi and pagasius catfish that take refuge in Vietnam’s stretch of the Mekong during the dry season.

Fishermen used to sell the best mother fish to aquaculture farmers to spawn and grow catfish in cages for export. Now that healthy mother fish are harder to find in Vietnam’s section of the Mekong River, many fishers have been forced to travel upstream as far as Cambodia’s Tonle Sap to fetch them.

But in the Tonle Sap, the situation is no better.

Cambodian fishers do not only report that household catch is declining. They say that the composition of the catch is also changing, so that they are netting less large, high value fish each year.

“Some people also believe that the severe floods that submerged vast regions in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam in the past few years may be the result of Chinese dams in Mekong upstream,” said Nguyen Tan, an agriculture expert at Can Tho’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. “My big concern is more for the Mekong sediment.”

“The dams’ reservoirs retain a lot of nutrient-rich sediment that would otherwise be spread by annual floods to the lower Mekong,” Tan said.

Because the soil becomes less fertile with a reduction of sediment from the Mekong, farmers must rely more and more on pollutive chemical fertiliser, he added.

Some 60 million people along the 4,800-kilometre path of the Mekong, which flows from Tibet, through Burma, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia before flowing out to the South China Sea through Vietnam, depend on the river for transportation, food and water for their crops.

Particularly controversial has been the construction of several dams on the Mekong mainstream, including the Chinese stretch of the river called Lancang, and several plans to develop dams on the Mekong mainstream in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand.

To foster the “environmentally sustainable development” of the Mekong, lower riparian countries Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam formed the MRC in 1995, signing an agreement that stated dam construction on the mainstream must be subject to prior notification between countries.

Any development involving the diversion of water out of the Mekong in the dry season must proceed on the basis of the agreement of all members.

China and Burma, the other two countries sharing the river, are mere observers in the commission. China maintains that its dams help prevent flooding in the Mekong Delta during the wet season.

In the meantime, the four MRC member countries, facing high oil prices and the need for more electricity to sustain economic growth, are revealing plans to construct their own hydropower plants on the Mekong mainstream.

There are different estimates of hydropower projects at various stages of planning, ideas and design, but some put at 80 the projects identified in the lower Mekong basin.

Of these, eight are planned for the lower Mekong mainstream, five in Laos, two in Thailand and one in Cambodia, activists say.

The most controversial of these is the Don Sahong dam, which will be built on the Mekong mainstream in Laos’ Khone Falls, where the river forms a complex network of narrow channels before flowing into Cambodia.

The dam will block the deepest channel on that section of the river and only one migratory fish can easily pass through at the peak of the dry season, April to May, when the water level of the Mekong is at its lowest.

This will effectively stop the dry season migration of fish between the feeding habitats of the Tonle Sap and upstream breeding zones in Laos and Thailand, critics say.

Phnom Penh is also mulling plans to build a dam on the mainstream in Kratie province, central Cambodia. A Chinese company is undertaking a feasibility study of the dam.

Environment groups have criticised the MRC for what they claim is the organisation’s strong pro-hydropower orientation.

In 2007, a coalition of 175 environmental and civic groups has sent an open letter saying it remains “notably silent despite the serious ecological and economic implications of damming the lower Mekong”.

In March this year, 51 citizens’ groups and individuals from all six Mekong countries challenged the MRC to deal with what they called the organisation’s “crisis of legitimacy and relevancy, recently exemplified by its failure to respond to civil society concerns over plans to dam the lower Mekong mainstream”.

Vietnam’s steady economic growth has fed a massive increase in demand for power. In addition to importing power from China and Laos, Vietnam has built several hydroelectric dams on its own rivers and is involved in projects across the border in Laos and Cambodia.

In Laos, Vietnamese companies are building the Xekamen 1 and Xekamen 3 dams on the Xekamen River, a tributary of the Mekong.

Vietnamese firms are also involved in projects that include a 1,410-megawatt dam scheme being overseen by PetroVietnam Power Co near Luang Prabang. A memorandum of understanding was signed mid-October 2007.

“So far, we have not succeeded in fighting Chinese hydropower dams because China is not a MRC member,” said Tan. “But now that huge projects are being planned on the Mekong mainstream, the VNMC is right to ring the alarm on the damages brought by big hydropower dams.”

“Too many big dams built on upstream as well as on downstream Mekong will wreak havoc to our fishing and agriculture,” he added.

In a speech marking VNMC’s 30th anniversary in September, Pham Khoi Nguyen, Minister of Natural Resources and Environment and committee chair, stressed that VNMC’s role was to “help protect Vietnam’s rights and benefits and reduce the negative impacts of development around the upper reaches of the river”.