A Work in Progress: Study on the Impacts of Vietnam’s Son La Hydropower Project

Vietnam Union of Science and Technology Associations
Sunday, January 1, 2006

Executive Summary

On November 12, 2002, the National Assembly of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam approved the construction of the Son La Hydropower Project, requiring the largest resettlement of people in Vietnam’s history. By 2010, 91,000 people or 18,968 households in the three provinces of Son La, Lai Chau and Dien Bien are expected to be resettled. Most of these people will be moved between 50 to 100 kilometers away from their current homes and without access to the Da River (Black River) -- a source of livelihood for most of them.

Dam construction formally started on December 2, 2005. As of early 2006, over 1,000 families had been moved. Land-use rights and the availability of arable land are the two most contentious aspects of the Son La resettlement project. Inter-related with these issues are ensuring sustainable livelihood for the affected people, and the impacts that resettlement will have on the cultural continuity and community values of the affected people, most of whom come from ethnic minority groups.

This study, conducted by the Vietnam Union of Science and Technology Associations in late 2005 and early 2006, used an inter-disciplinary team of researchers to examine the socio-economic, cultural, environmental and health impacts of the Son La resettlement project. Field surveys were conducted by the study team in the two provinces of Son La and Lai Chau and included 5 districts, 11 communes and 25 villages. This English version is a summary of a much larger, four-part study that was published in Vietnamese in July 2006. The study provides much-needed and new empirical data on how resettlement is impacting project-affected people -- pre-resettlement, post-resettlement and in host communities.

Because this study has been carried out at the start of the implementation phase of resettlement, it provides a timely tool for policy makers, affected people and international donors to address outstanding concerns. It is hoped that the concerns reflected in this study will be taken seriously and a follow-up plan developed based on the findings of this report. The report is only a first step in ensuring that resettlement improves rather than worsens the lives of more than 91,000 people that will be resettled as a result of the project.

Key Findings

While there is a serious attempt to implement resettlement in a positive manner, there are several areas that require significant improvement. The following outlines the key findings and concerns raised by the study team.

  1. Positive Aspects of the Resettlement Program
    1. Encouraging the participation of local government and people: The resettlement master plan has been developed with the participation of the provincial People’s Committees of Son La, Lai Chau and Dien Bien Provinces and of local people. The plan has been developed in a way that attempts to respect and uphold the cultural values of ethnic minorities in the area. This is a step in the right direction. Compared to other dam projects in Vietnam, the resettlement plan allows affected people to have greater control over the resettlement process. The support to resettled people has been targeted to those who need it, and the project has increased the funding for compensation and resettlement activities in response to the needs of affected communities.
    2. The project aims to increase living standards: The La Ha, Kho Mu and Khang minorities, who previously lived in congested spaces by the Da River, now live in larger villages, although more infrastructure needs to be built in order to make these villages inhabitable. Furthermore, affected people have been satisfied with their new houses and the infrastructure in some resettlement sites is a remarkable improvement upon previous living conditions. This creates more willingness by local people to participate in the process and cooperate through its different phases.
    3. Environmental health issues are being addressed: Issues surrounding environmental health, potable water and sanitary conditions in resettlement sites are being addressed alongside housing, employment and income concerns. Basic provisions for primary health care have been put in place. Local authorities have assigned commune health stations and village health points in host communities to provide healthcare for resettled people.

  2. Problems and Challenges of the Resettlement Program
    1. Administrative Hurdles and Delays: Though legal documents and a resettlement master plan exist, specific guidelines and plans have not been developed or implemented by local authorities in a timely manner. Bureaucratic mismanagement is creating delays in implementation. The result is that many people are moved before necessary infrastructure is in place. There is a serious shortage of qualified and trained personnel at district-level Resettlement Management Units, affecting the success of the resettlement program.
    2. The Question of Land: The availability of sufficient arable land has been a major problem in this project. The shortage of land in the area is making the provision of “land for land” compensation difficult. Most of the resettled people remain without any agricultural land. The land that will eventually be given to them will be taken from host communities, potentially leading to inter-community conflicts in the future.
    3. The Question of Livelihood: Resettled communities are not being given adequate assistance in transitioning from their former method of farming (wet rice cultivation) to other forms of upland agriculture production. Very little is being done to help them grow food and create an environment for food self-sufficiency in their new locations. This is leading to greater food insecurity. In the short run, affected people face the immediate difficulties of moving to a new environment, community, climate and a completely different way of living without the river. In the long run, they risk being deprived of sustainable sources of livelihood. There are already signs of increased poverty amongst affected people.
    4. One Size Fits All Doesn’t Work for Affected People: The allotment of 400 m² of residential land (including garden plots) to each household in rural resettlement sites regardless of family size is unfair to large families or those who had more property pre-resettlement.
    5. Problems Managing Cash Compensation: Many households who have received large sums of cash compensation have had a hard time managing it. Not accustomed to saving and investing, some have bought motorbikes, while others have wasted it on drinking or drugs. These households are likely to suffer from future food shortages and may fall back into poverty if no sustainable means of income is found.
    6. Unequal Costs and Benefits between Resettled and Host Communities: Disparities are emerging between host communities and those being resettled. In some cases, the host population ends up with smaller houses than those who have been resettled, with less compensation. This is starting to create resentment in resettlement sites.
    7. Disintegration of Communities: Some communities are being torn apart because clan members and kin cannot move together to a new resettlement site; or names of their old villages cannot be taken with them. Existing social structures and community relationships are breaking down. The involuntary nature of resettlement is creating trauma for many groups as their ancestral lands will be flooded from the reservoir.
    8. Creating Better Access to Clean Water: In some sites, people have poor quality drinking water, and serious water shortages during the dry season. According to the resettlement policy, the government must provide pipes, water tanks or wells for villages before they are resettled, but this has not been the case for many villages.
    9. Creating Access to Healthcare: Some resettlement sites are constructed far from health clinics. People have been moved to new sites while clinics are still under construction. In these instances, affected people find it very difficult to get to their local health clinic due to lack of roads and distance.


This report addresses issues that have been overlooked in previous impact assessments of Son La and thus provides an important resource to improve resettlement in Son La. We make the following recommendations based on this study:

  1. Planning
    • Affected people should be moved into new resettlement sites only after detailed plans have been agreed upon for the site. In urban resettlement sites, component projects that include, basic water and sanitation infrastructure, roads, clearly marked boundaries and detailed plans for town development must be completed before affected people are moved in.
    • Electricity of Vietnam (EVN) must link its construction on the Son La Hydropower Project with the resettlement project and be accountable for the impacts of its work on resettlement. Currently, the onus has been put on provincial authorities to deal with the aftermath of EVN actions on resettlement. Rather than speeding up project construction, it must be slowed down to deal with resettlement.

  2. Compensation for Losses
    • Affected people must be compensated for the loss of property, trees, crops and other assets. In particular, where people have to move out of their district before new agricultural land has been distributed, affected people must be given sufficient transition time to adjust to their new environment with adequate government support to secure their livelihood and food security.
    • Affected people should not be moved until agricultural land is available. Moving affected people without proper livelihood provisions is creating a dangerous situation whereby compensation money is rapidly spent and people remain without work for months. This uncertainty leads to wasteful spending, alcoholism and depression.
    • Affected people must have an effective livelihood plan before they are resettled. Part of the plan must include a discussion with the resettlers about what they can do at the resettlement site to earn income, what crops they can grow and the necessary agricultural extension they may need to help them with their new environment.
    • Compensation should be provided to those who depended on the river for their livelihoods but now have been resettled away from it.
    • Compensation should also be provided for infrastructure investments made by communities on their former sites and which were costly to build (such as canals or water irrigation systems built by households or groups of households). These investments can no longer be utilized by the communities and will have to be rebuilt in the new resettlement areas.

  3. Implementation
    • Residential land should be given to resettled people taking into account the lifestyles of the different ethnic groups and how residential areas looked in their former villages. Policies should be flexible enough to allow more than the current maximum level of 400 m² for residential land (house and garden).
    • The quality of farmland should be assessed with the participation of those being resettled before being allocated. If the land is fertile, then the amount currently designated is adequate for allocation. However, where the land is on a hillside or degraded, then the amount allocated to households must be greater. Land allocation should also be contingent on family size.
    • The allocation of residential plots should respect people’s wishes. For instance, members of the same clan and/or family should be allowed to live close to or next to each other.
    • Basic and essential services such as schools must be completed before the new academic year starts. Currently, many resettled children stay at home because the nearest school is over 10 km away and no public transport exists to take them to school. Access to schools should be legally binding for all resettlement sites.
    • Resettlement management must be improved at the district level. For instance, resettlement personnel must be trained better to deal with local people. More personnel should be recruited from within the affected ethnic minorities so that the cultural dimensions can be better incorporated in resettlement. There should also be an increase in full-time staff at the district resettlement units.

  4. Improving Community Health
    • Solutions must be found for water provision. For instance, the district Resettlement Management Unit (RMU) should invest in water storage such as construction of water wells, water tanks and other methods to harvest rainwater for dry season use. This is particularly necessary where forests are seriously degraded, affecting natural water sources such as mountain creeks or rivers.
    • The authorities should invest in improving the quality and capacity of healthcare in project affected areas by training healthcare workers, providing an action plan for prevention of common diseases, health education and access to medicines for prevalent illnesses in the area.
    • Sufficient funding should be allocated to the resettlement project to prevent epidemics in districts where resettlement is underway. Though no new diseases or epidemics have yet occurred in resettlement sites, preventive healthcare must be improved. This can be done by improving hygiene and sanitation in resettlement sites.
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