Better late than never to scrap damaging hydropower plants

The Ministry of Industry and Trade (MOIT) recently announced that it would remove eight cascade and 463 small hydropower plants from its master plan and reject another 213 potential projects - a move that came better late than never.

Hydroelectricity is cheap but the mass development has led to damaging consequences.
Hydroelectricity is cheap but the mass development has led to damaging consequences.

The decision came after a three-year review period during which the MOIT and provincial authorities worked together to thoroughly assess the economic benefits, technical specifications and environmental as well as social impacts of planned projects.

It was part of efforts to curb hydropower projects especially small and medium-sized ones which had been previously licensed in large numbers and which had brought about adverse effects on the environment and society.

Compared to electricity generated from coal-fired and gas power stations, hydroelectricity is much cheaper. Reservoirs can also help with regulating water for irrigation and aquaculture. But the mass development of hydropower projects in recent years has led to damaging consequences: local residents displaced, forests wiped out and more frequent occurrence of flash flooding and landslides in mountainous areas. In the lower reaches, the people are also living in fear of flooding caused by water released from hydropower reservoirs. Lately, a number of hydropower plants such as Bac Ha (Lao Cai province), Dak Srong 2A, An Khe-Ka Nak (Gia Lai province) have failed to comply with water discharge regulations, causing severe damage to crops and other properties.

But damages for affected residents and fines handed out to hydropower plant operators were too small to deter them from committing further violations. As such competent authorities must continue closely inspecting newly licensed projects as well as those under construction or in operation. Small hydropower projects, which have exposed weaknesses in management and operation, must be taken into consideration and be removed or adjusted properly.

For projects that have already been put into operation, if the owners do not fulfil their reforestation pledges and forest environment service payment obligations or if they are found to harm the environment or cause major damage to local residents, such projects must be suspended or have their licences revoked. For projects under construction, if the owners take advantage of building work to chop down trees illegally, construction must be halted.

Meanwhile better control is needed to ensure a sufficient water flow during the dry season to supply water for the lower reaches. The MOIT should work with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment and other relevant agencies to review and amend the current water discharge regulations for small hydropower plants in accordance with the ongoing irregular weather. Projects whose operators are incompetent and which intentionally violate the regulations must be severely fined or even closed indefinitely before it is too late.