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Safety problems plague hydro-power plants

VietNamNet Bridge – A number of serious malfunctions occurred consecutively at different small-scale hydro-power plants in the central region and Central Highlands over the last few months. They have raised grave concerns about the safety of hundreds of other plants in the area. Viet Nam News reporter Le Quynh Anh spoke to the authorities and experts to examine the issue.

Never before have we seen malfunctions in hydro-power plants, such as breaches in dam walls which are supposed to be rare, occur this frequently. How do you assess the seriousness of the problem?

Cao Anh Dung, deputy director general of the Ministry of Industry and Trade’s Industrial Safety Techniques and Environment Agency:

Most of the incidents have been in small-scale hydro-power plants which are run by private investors. While hydro-power plants of 15MW and more are generally fine, there are many problems with those whose capacity is 5MW and less.

At the heart of those problems is the lack of proper understanding of safety rules by the investors and, I have to say, they have not taken it seriously. They do not comply with all the requirements on keeping the quality of construction work up to standard.

During our investigative trips in the field, many a time we have come across investors who did not even know such safety requirements for hydro-power plants existed. They often overlooked the importance of ensuring the safety for hydro-power plants because they believed that due to the small scale, in case of accidents, the consequences would not be big. This is, of course, completely wrong.

Meanwhile, the local authorities, who have the power to approve small-scale hydro-power development projects, do not have sufficient knowledge and expertise to assess the feasibility of the project before approval.

In some exceptional cases, the local authorities did not know how many hydro-power development projects there were under their watch.

Another thing is that small-scale hydro-power plants are often located in remote area which can be accessible only on foot and the total length of travelling on foot could be up to 10km. Authorities were reluctant to visit and examine these sites and so failed to check on safety requirements.

Dao Trong Tu, senior water expert, Viet Nam River Network:

Honestly, I am not surprised at all at what has been unfolding in the past few months. From what I observe, such incidents were just a matter of time. It is a revelation of an unsound policy that favours quick hydro-power development.

I, along with other scientists, have warned about the repercussions of developing too many hydro-power plants over too short a period as has been happening. However, our warnings seemed to fall on deaf ears. But now serious things are happening and I believe it is time that relevant agencies break the ignorance streak.

Developing a hydro-power plant is very difficult because the technical requirements for the construction are very stringent. It is not only because such construction works have a great impact on the ecosystem and environment but also a minor failure of a plant could jeopardise the safety of thousands of residents living downstream, regardless of the scale of the plant.

Even in a small plant, if a dam wall is breached when the water level in the reservoir is at its highest peak, it could blow a village away. That is why safety and quality systems must be rigorous and up to date.

This means hydro-power development is not for everyone. But because of the high ratio of return on investment, investors from every field try to get a foot in the door of hydro-power development. Local authorities, driven by profits, also welcome such investors and seem to go very easy on approving hydro-power development plans.

All of these have led us to what we see today.

Hydro-power proponents often argue that hydro-power plants will benefit local people, particularly in remote, poor areas. To what extent do you agree with this?

Siu Sim, chairman of the Ia Dom Commune, Duc Co District, Gia Lai Province:

I absolutely disagree. My people here in Ia Dom Commune do not see any benefits from the presence of the Ia Krel 2 hydro-power plant. It contributes nothing to the commune. Ironically, they are the first to be trapped in a dire situation when an incident occurs. They saw it first-hand.

Last month, my commune made headlines in the local media after the Ia Krel 2 hydro-power dam collapsed in just the blink of an eye, and water flooded the whole village five kilometres away. The picture of a young man desperately clinging to a tree to avoid being swept away by the treacherous current speaks for itself.

We were completely taken aback by this. Local people never wanted a hydro-power plant nearby in the first place, but they did not protest because they thought the plant was being developed by the State. It turned out we were wrong.

The investor has never worked with local authorities, let alone consulting local people on this. We knew very little about the development of the plant and absolutely had no say in its construction, while it has had a remarkable impact on our lives.

Even after the incident, I am very skeptical that my people’s voices will be heard, even though their opposition for the operation of such plants could not be any stronger. It is because the deal had been closed at a higher level and only intervention from this level could actually produce some change.

Tu: Theoretically, developing small-scale hydro-power plants in a proper way will benefit local communities to a great extent, especially in places which could not be reached by the national grid. Energy is indispensable for any economic activity, so by generating electricity, the plants should trigger economic growth. Of course, we are speaking on one vital condition that safety is assured.

The problem here in Viet Nam is that we approach small-scale hydro-power plants in the wrong way. Every hydro-power plant is gearing towards selling the electricity and making a profit, so investors show no interest in contributing to the development of local communities.

So what needs to be done?

Dung: Given the situation, the Government has requested local authorities to strengthen their monitoring of hydro-power projects under their watch in terms of inspection or issuing guidelines with a priority on safety. A complete review of all hydro-power projects is still ongoing.

Our ministry has helped draft sanctions for hydro-power dam safety violations.

We suggest one sanction that could actually work is that any investor detected to have failed to comply with dam safety regulations would not be able to have their electricity sold.

Currently, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development is working on a decree on dam safety regulations. This decree will help clarify the responsibilities of relevant ministries and local authorities, which are now overlapping.

If a violation is detected, it will be handled according to the extent of the violation. We do not think forcing them to stop completely is a good idea because often the investment is based on money borrowed from a bank. If the safety issues can be fixed, we let them fix it. The bottom line is that safety must be ensured and no excuses.

Tu: It is time for management agencies to give dam safety issues the attention they deserve. We think an exhaustive check on each and every hydro-power development project should be carried out to get a comprehensive perspective of the problems. Technically, most of the safety issues that occur could be fixed properly as long as they are brought to light.

My concern is whether the ministries and the local authorities are going to do it right? That is why we demand them to be transparent in the outcome of their inspections. The public could also contribute to the monitoring process. For example, scientists like me could use our expertise to see whether the safety assessment of a particular plant is correct.

In the long run, I do not think we should approve new hydro-power plants because frankly, we have exploited our rivers very close to their potential. We should leave some for the next generations, that is a sustainable way of developing hydro-power.

Also, we should redesign our policies on small-scale hydro-power plants or even redo a complete plan for hydro-power development across the country. We need to put in place the policies to steer investors of small-scale hydro-power plants to cater for the energy needs of local communities, rather than profits.

The national grid is mainly fed by large-scale hydro-power plants and thermo-power plants so let small-scale hydro-power plants serve remote areas that do not have access to the national grid.

Sum: I think what is lacking now is a working mechanism to hold investors accountable for those affected. We need this mechanism to be transparent and two-way to ensure local people can stay informed about the operation of a plant and if they have concerns, investors will have to respond to them in a timely and decent manner.

Source: VNS

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