Environmental Concerns Prompt Vietnam to Cancel Two Dams

Cat Thien National Park
Cat Thien National Park

Vietnam has cancelled plans to build two dams on the Dong Nai River that would threaten a world biosphere reserve. A study by the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment reported that the Dong Nai 6 and Dong Nai 6A dams would destroy more than 327 hectares of forests, 128 hectares of which are in the Cat Tien National Park. The project’s far-reaching impacts would also affect the Bau Sau (Crocodile Lake) wetlands that are inside the park.

The Cat Tien National Park received UNESCO recognition as a Biosphere Reserve Zone in 2001, and is now one of the six biggest biosphere reserves in the world. It is home to around 1,700 species of rare plants and more than 700 animal and birds, many of which are endangered. The Bau Sau wetlands inside the park have also been acknowledged as having international importance through the Ramsar convention on wetlands. However plans to expand hydropower development in the area have threatened the status of the National Park.

At a meeting held by the World Heritage Committee in May, the Cat Tien National Park was refused recognition as a Natural World Heritage site due to threats from hydropower plants, quarrying and wild animal trading, which have had a major effect on the park’s value. The Committee advised that the park apply stricter and more effective protection and management measures to fight against such threats.

The order to pull the plug on these dams came from the Deputy Prime Minister of Vietnam after receiving reports of the projects environmental impacts and in response to pressure from local groups, including our partners in the Vietnam Rivers Network.

Earlier this year the Prime Minister of Vietnam, Nguyen Tan Dung called for all hydropower projects across the country to undergo thorough examinations in order to increase dam safety. The Prime Minister’s declaration was prompted by concerns over the safety of the 190-MW Song Tranh 2 hydropower complex, which was not properly evaluated for its reservoir capacity or stability under seismic duress. Since 2011, the Song Thanh Dam has triggered a series of seismic tremors that devastated villages and terrified their inhabitants. Dam safety was again called into question in June of this year after the collapse of the Krei 2 Dam in the Central Highlands in Gia Lai. An investigation into the dam breach revealed that dam was not constructed in accordance with the approved design. The inside of the structure was supposed to be covered with a 20cm thick layer of cement, but instead, much of the inside face was built with soil, leaving the dam much weaker than planned. In May, the government of Vietnam scrapped plans to build 338 hydropower plants because the projects didn't meet environmental standards. According to the Deputy Prime Minister, since then more than 67 other hydropower projects have been suspended or cancelled.

Vietnam is also taking measures to try and prevent negative impacts from dams built in neighboring countries, particularly those planned for the Mekong mainstream. The Deputy Prime Minister has called upon the Mekong countries to ratify the 1997 UN Watercourse Convention, which, unlike the 1995 Mekong Agreement that failed to address the concerns of Vietnam and Cambodia over the impacts of Laos’ Xayaburi Dam, provides a mechanism to prevent dams from being built that, could have large-scale trans-boundary impacts.

ly fish traps used along the Mekong River
Ly fish traps used along the Mekong River

Unfortunately, Laos seems far from ratifying any such convention, yet alone even respecting the 1995 Mekong Agreement.

While Vietnam appears to be making a concerted effort to evaluate the impacts and safety of existing and planned dams in the country, Laos is plowing ahead with plans to dramatically alter the Mekong mainstream, with no concern for the impacts on its neighbors, much less their input on the projects. Last week Laos notified the Mekong River Commission (MRC) and member countries of its plans to build its second Mekong mainstream project, the 260MW Don Sahong Dam. By notifying the MRC in such a way – through a letter of “prior notification”– Laos is bypassing the MRC’s “prior consultation” process and going against statements made by the MRC Secretariat and international donor countries which call for consultation and regional-decision making to take place. If built, the Don Sahong Dam would block the only channel on the Mekong available for dry-season fish migration, putting the world’s largest inland fishery in jeopardy and threatening to push Vietnam and Cambodia closer to a food crisis.

With so much at stake for the Mekong, Laos should be heeding the example of its neighbors in Vietnam, rather than moving forward unliaterally on this destructive and dangerous path.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013