A controversial project

Negative impact of small hydropower projects have been felt in different parts of the country. They have led to forest destruction, flash floods and lack of water for irrigation.

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Over the years, the Government and local authorities have scrapped many projects due to low economic efficiency but high social and environmental costs.

A major waterway and hydropower project in the Red River which the Ministry of Planning and Investment has recently presented to the Prime Minister has drawn fire from the public. Experts have voiced strong opposition to the project as it would impact millions of residents along the river.

The VND24.5 trillion (US$1.1 billion) project in the north-central province of Ninh Binh, proposed by Xuan Thien Co Ltd, is unprecedented in terms of scale and complexity.

According to the investor’s latest proposal, the project is aimed at upgrading the waterway along the Red River by connecting two major routes – Haiphong-Viet Tri and Hanoi-Lach Giang, and generating 0.91 billion kWh of electricity a year. 

To achieve these goals, the investor plans to build six dams, dredge a 288-kilometer channel along the Red River stretch from Viet Tri City to the northern upland province of Lao Cai, construct six hydropower plants with a total capacity of 228MW, or 38MW each, and construct seven river ports along the route from Hanoi to Lao Cai.

However, many experts have expressed concern that combining waterway and dam construction would affect traffic in the river, water supply and livelihoods of 20 million people in the Red River Delta. The Mekong Delta is now struggling with drought and salination while more than 100 tons of dead fish has been washed ashore in four central provinces. 

The Red River is now playing a crucial part in balancing the country’s ecological system. Therefore, damming on the river is certainly associated with high risks.

Tran Dinh Long, deputy chairman of the Vietnam Power Association, said on Vietnamnet news site that Lao and Chinese hydropower dams in the upper reaches of the Mekong River have affected millions of people in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam’s key rice growing area. Low levels of rivers in the delta have paved the way for saltwater to make its way into paddy fields. This lesson should be learned.  

Damming would send silt in the Red River falling, affect water flows and lead to saltwater intrusion. “The Red River Delta is one of Vietnam’s most important rice granaries and the river has thousands of years of cultural value. I think that five to seven hydropower stations with capacity of several hundred MW each will not contribute significantly to the national grid. Our solar and wind power potential is huge, so I don’t see why we should develop such small hydropower plants,” Long said.

Xuan Thien would be able to cover only 30% of the estimated cost of the project, so the rest would have to come from bank loans. This means the company would charge high port fees on ship owners to have money to repay loans. 

What is more, it proposes the build-operate-own (BOO) format for the project, thus allowing it to tap Red River potential indefinitely.

“A BOO project is too dangerous. It would have huge impact on our future,” Long notes.

Nguy Thi Khanh, a member of the Vietnam Rivers Network Advisory Board, said in Tuoi Tre newspaper that river dredging would damage sediment that has settled over a period of thousands of years. Damming would change water flows in the river, hurt fish migration, and bring less silt and water to paddy fields and other crops in downstream areas.

Tran Viet Ngai, chairman of the Vietnam Energy Association, said many questions need to be answered before the project could get the go-ahead. “Is it really urgent? What would happen if we do not build dams there? Is this project meant to develop a canal or hydropower plants?”

Damming has led forest land in the country to shrink drastically over the years, so the Government should know where the six dams would be built if it approves the project.

Investors involved in small and medium hydropower projects often pledge to minimize tree felling but vast areas of forest have disappeared since hydropower facilities took shape. Therefore, authorities should consider this project carefully, he added.

The Vietnam Rivers Network (VRN) on May 11 called for the Government to kill the project. The project might help step up economic and trade cooperation between local provinces and neighboring countries. 

However, Chinese firms could take advantage of the project to boost sales in the Mekong Sub-region and Africa via the East Sea, the Gulf of Thailand and the Indian Ocean while shipping raw materials from Africa to China. As a result, Vietnamese logistics service providers would miss this business opportunity, it explains.

The National Assembly has recently abolished 400 small hydropower projects, so there is no reason for approving the six 38MW hydropower plants because they would not make great contritutions to the power industry but their impacts on local communities along the socially and economically important Red River would be tremendous.

Saigon Times

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