Hydropower projects drying up central Vietnam's water supplies

[Editor's note: The following story comes from our editorial partner VietNamNet Bridge.]

VietNamNet Bridge — In the central Vietnam, about 200 hydro-power projects have been built, are being built or are on the drawing boards. With Vietnam facing chronic shortages of power in the summer months, electricity generation has become a hot product — so profitable that little attention has been given to environmental consequences.

The Zahung dam on Zahung river, built to serve the 30 MW Zahung hydro-power plant.

Many companies, including some with no experience at all in power projects, have jumped into the hydropower business. Hardly a river in the central region of Vietnam has escaped the attention of electricity investors. Quang Nam province has many such projects.

The Vu Gia and Thu Bon, Quang Nam’s principal rivers, arise in the Truong Son mountains. These rivers run through many gorges. They are the sources of water for villages of ethnic minority peoples. In recent years, these sources of life have been wasting away in the face of the storm called “hydro power.”

The Kon, which passes Zo Ngay and Song Kon communes in Quang Nam province, is one of these rivers. A dam of more than 160 feet high barricades its channel, diverting the river’s flow to one side. Behind the dam, the river bed is exposed. On the river face, the last stage of the Song Kon 2 hydro-power project is nearly finished. It will begin to generate power in early July.

The initial design of the project was for a single dam. The investor, however, discovered that the water capacity is still big enough after it is regulated by the dam to power an additional 3 megawatt (MW) turbine there. Nearly 2 miles from the major dam is a smaller dam of 120 feet high.

Geruco – Kon River 2 Hydro-power Joint stock Company’s planning director Tran Quang Hoa says that the principal dam can impound 29 million cubic meters of water while the smaller one can hold another 1.2 million cubic meters. With the two dams, the Song Kon 2 power plant can generate 63 megawatts (MW) of electricity continuously.

About 20 miles from Kon river, another huge dam has been built on Zahung river, impounding its waters during construction of the 30 MW Zatung hydropower plant. Downstream from the dam, the Zahung is now just a shadow of the former river.

“Since the day this power plant was built, fish and shrimp have disappeared. Perhaps I’ll have to quit this work,” said Alang Be, a Zahung village resident who has worked as a fisherman on the river for several decades.

About five miles farther downstream, the Zahung river becomes the A Vuong river. It is once again blocked by a dam, this time impounding water for the A Vuong hydro-power plant. A year ago, the reservoir of A Vuong power plant was full of water, surrounded by green pine trees. Now, however, when the plant is trying to satisfy peak demand, the reservoir is mostly dry to its bed. Trees around the reservoir have died.

In a ceremony before turbine No.2 of A Vuong power plant in Quang Nam province was put into operation, A Vuong Hydro-power JS Company’s chairman Nguyen Van Le stated that the firm saved around 240 billion dong ($14.1 million) by starting up 180 days ahead of schedule. The pay-back period calculated for the $235 million project is nine years, after which its investors will see profit.

A financial staff of the A Luoi hydro-power project in the central province of Thua Thien – Hue explained that investments in such projects are stable and profitable because the demand for electricity is always higher than supply. The technology is also simple.

He said that the A Luoi power plant is forecast to sell nearly $30 million worth of power annually, and investors will retrieve their investment capital of $190.2 million after nine years. They expect high profits thereafte for at least 40 years.

As a result, promotors had no difficulty raising 700 billion dong of capital for this project in just a few months. The construction of A Luoi power plant is being speeded up.

It is highly efficient to invest in hydro power projects in the central region. It is the rainy season there at the same time that big hydro-power plants in the north like Hoa Binh, Tri An or Yaly must to reduce their output during the dry season in the North, from September to December. At that time, electricity is at a premium, and the central region power plants can operate at their highest capacity to serve the market.

The wave of investment in hydro-power plants in the central region continues. There are reports that some foreign capital investment groups are trying to buy the shares of Vietnamese investors in some projects.

Government agencies in Quang Nam province fear an environment disaster can result from blocking the streams of the Vu Gia and Thu Bon rivers.

According to Da Nang City authorities, if Idico, the investor of Dak Mi 4 hydro-power project directs Dak Mi river’s flow to the Thu Bon river, instead of the Vu Gia river as before, it is feared that 1.7 million people, including 850,000 in Da Nang and the rest in Quang Nam, will be short of water for nine months in a year, from January to September. Moreover, more than 20,000 hectares of agricultural land in the lower reaches of the Vu Gia river will lack water.

Huynh Van Thang, vice chief of Da Nang’s Agriculture and Rural Development Department, said that the construction of many hydro-power plants on the same river will affect the flow in the downstream. Da Nang will be one of locations that suffers most once river flows dry up.

Thang said the Dak Mi 4 project is flawed by errors in the research stage.

Before Dak Mi 4 was built, the International Centre for Environmental Management (ICEM) warned that changing the course of the Dak Mi river is unnecessary and it can cause harmful impacts in terms of environment, society and economics in the region. However, the warning was not submitted to the central government.

According to the Ministry of Industry and Trade’s plan, the Boung River 4 must be built before Dak Mi 4 in all cases but actually, the construction of Dak Mi 4 has gone ahead first.

An interagency meeting chaired by the Prime Minister’s Office was organized on June 11 by the Ministry of Industry and Trade (MITI) to seek solutions for Dak Mi. The Ministry of Industry and Trade has required the investor of Dak Mi 4 to return the water to the Vu Gia River after it has been run through the power generation turbines. A committee of experts will be formed to calculate how to maintain an adequate flow of water through the river.

Source: VietNamNet/TT