Vietnam is a rapidly growing economy and with industrialisation comes the need for increased resources such as electricity. To cope with this demand Vietnam has built many dams on its rivers. These dams have had a significant impact on the environment as well as on the lives of those people who were dependent on the river for their livelihood.

Many people and communities have been forcibly moved due to the construction of dams. These people were poor but had sustainable lives along the river, growing their own food and fishing in the river. They were moved to areas where they had insufficient land to grow their own food and provide for their families, no access to employment and often no access to water.

Vietnam’s steadily growing economy in the last two decades has led to an increasing demand for energy. In order to meet this rising demand, the Government of Vietnam is developing the hydropower industry, which it expects eventually to supply two-thirds of the country’s energy. In Central Vietnam over the past 20 years, many hydropower projects of different sizes and capacities have been planned and constructed, especially from Quang Binh to Phu Yen and Provinces in Central Highlands. Overall, hydropower is now contributing about 35 per cent to 40 per cent of national energy production. However, the rapidly increasing number of hydropower plants in Central Vietnam has already raised many environmental and social concerns and we are facing adverse consequences for the sustainable development of the whole area.

Hydropower requires vast quantities of water from the rivers and destroys the river ecology. Hydropower plant operation and deforestation are creating conflicts over water usage; they are destroying livelihoods; and they cause the displacement of many communities who traditionally lived sustainably beside the rivers.  Downstream people also face many water-related challenges; and trans- boundary impacts include flooding, water shortage and water pollution.

The Government of Vietnam has decreed that the natural environment should be protected from the negative impacts of uncontrolled, industrial development. Ordinance 29/2011/ND-CP (strategic environmental assessment, environmental impact assessment and environmental protection commitment) sets out the range of environmental assessments which are to be undertaken before approval for a construction project to proceed is granted. Circular 26/2011_TT-BTNMT provides details of these assessments to guide local authorities and applicants through the process of assessing environmental impacts. However, there are significant gaps and inconsistencies between the actual processes that have been undertaken in the recent past, and the government-decreed process.

Increasing dam construction causes the forced resettlement of thousands of poor ethnic minority people as well as impacting tens of thousands of people living downstream. There can be frequent and unpredictable floods for example, when the dam operators release water without prior warning or  with insufficient time for people downstream to prepare for a flood, or there can be a loss of volume and quality of water.

Specifically some of the results of hydropower dams on river systems are:

  • Hydropower companies release water stored in dams at times which suit their own operations, without regard for the effect it will have downstream, so that in the rainy season for instance, it can worsen the flooding.
  • Changed river water flow patterns cause erosion of the riverbanks where crops are growing.
  • The downstream river water quality deteriorates.
  • Farmers do not have the water they need for their crops.
  • There is a decrease in fish catch, erosion of riverbanks and impacts on riverbank farming, drinking water and health.
  • Accelerated salt intrusion into river mouths results in a lower volume of fresh water.
  • Changes in the ecology impact adversely on fish. Some species may not survive and the livelihood of fishing people is threatened.
  • Re-settled people usually face a more difficult life after resettlement.
  • Poor communities are re-settled onto land, which does not respond to their traditional farming techniques. They must learn different ways of farming but this will take time. Or, they return to using outmoded and illegal slash-and-burn agriculture and destroy forests. Alternatively, they may try to return to the areas where they once lived near the dams for forest exploitation and agriculture, causing many conflicts between re-settled people and hydro investors, local authorities and local people.
  • Most re-settled people do not have adequate land for production and are often re-settled in areas with poor soil or lacking in water.
  • Many re-settled people are forced to find employment outside their community. Often this is seasonal work in tree plantations and is physically demanding, suitable for strong young men only.
  • When the re-settled people cannot grow their own food they have to try and find work outside in order to buy food. This means sending some members of the family, often young girls, to the city (i.e. factories in Ho Chi Minh City) to work and send money back to support the family. This breaks up family structures and also puts the young girls at risk alone in the city.
  • Forced re-settlement puts pressure on all community members and exacerbates many social problems such as domestic violence and broken community structures.