Mekong Utility Watch

100,000 to be forced out as dam project floods land

South China Morning Post
August 20, 2001

Son La hydro-electric dam, Vietnam’s largest infrastructure project, is expected to flood much of the remote northwest province, amid concerns over safety, debate on the necessity of the dam, and displacement of 100,000 people.

A river runs through the remote northwest province of Son La, where lush valleys peppered with ethnic minority villages nestle between rugged mountains.

The idyllic Da River slices through the quiet district of Muong La, where farmers have tilled their rice fields for generations. But the next generation may not be around to reap rewards from the soil.

Vietnam’s largest infrastructure project, the massive Son La hydro-electric dam, is expected to flood much of Muong La and several other districts in Son La and neighbouring Lai Chau.

Amid concerns over safety, hand-wringing over money, and fierce debate as to whether the dam is necessary, as many as 100,000 people, mainly ethnic minorities, are likely to be displaced over the next few years as their land is flooded.

A 265-metre-high dam at Son La would generate up to 4,000 megawatts – 80 per cent of Vietnam’s current capacity – and flood 44,700 hectares of land by the time the turbines start churning a decade from now.

“We’re pleased to accommodate,” said Lo Ngoc On, the Black Thai ethnic minority chairman of Muong La, spouting a well-worn party line.

The mood may be different among the local hill tribes, but government authorities expect a recently approved tranche of US$660 million (HK$5.1 billion) earmarked for resettlement will provide the incentive for local residents to pull stakes and start a new life elsewhere. “I think they’ll accept whatever reality comes out of this,” said Son La provincial chairman Le Binh Thanh.

Son La is just the largest in a list of future power plans on the drawing board as this rapidly growing nation struggles to quench its thirst for energy.

Officials have long felt a huge complex in Son La would go far to solve a pending energy crisis.

After more than a decade of study, experts came up with three options – highland, lowland and small-scale – one of which is set to be chosen by the National Assembly later this year.

But bigger is not better, according to Dr Tran Nhon, president of the consultancy Vietnam Water Resources Development Association. “Small is beautiful,” he said. “And we oppose all the decisions for high Son La as not scientific.”

Safety is a major worry, as the Da River flows through the earthquake-prone northwest towards Hanoi, which experts say would be virtually destroyed in the event of a Son La dam disaster.

Categories: Mekong Utility Watch

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