Hydropower plants must be held to account for the loss of lives and the flooding of tens of thousands of homes, say environmental activists.
The sudden release of huge volumes of water from plants in north-central provinces in mid-October was blamed for exacerbating floods that killed dozens and left vast areas under water.
Campaigners say the failure to punish operators that put profits before the lives of people mean that similar disasters will be repeated in the future.
“I understand the important function of hydropower plants, but was it the only option to drop a gigantic water bomb in the middle of a stormy night without prior notice to the locals?” asked environmental activist, Cao Tran.
“There are 365 days in a year, why did the reservoir have to release water only on one day?” he added.
Torrent of water
Torrential rains brought by a tropical depression in the middle of October led to the submergence of tens of thousands of homes in Ha Tinh and Quang Binh provinces.
Officials acknowledged at the time that the abrupt decision to release a torrent of water from the Ho Ho hydroelectric plant, without proper notice, had made the disaster much worse.
On 14th October, at 6.30pm, the management board of Ho Ho hydropower plant (Huong Khe district, Ha Tinh province) decided to stop operations and release water because its reservoir was in danger of overflowing after two days of torrential rain.
The discharge was measured at approximately 1,800 cubic meters per second, with some estimates putting it even higher, sending a wall of water into lowland areas.
Water levels were already dangerously high at the reservoir because of previous downpours.
Environmental campaigners say the operators of the plant must have been fully aware that such drastic action might be necessary, at such a devastating cost to residents.
“The Ho Ho hydropower plant…is responsible for the submergence of thousands of homes in the area. For people whose lives have already been filled with hardship and suffering, where is the justice for them?” wrote an independent blogger, Cao Huy Huan.
He was one of many demanding guarantees that no more lives be sacrificed for the sake of greed and profits.
At the time the flood gates were opened, the reservoir management board merely notified local committees for flood and storm control by telephone.
As a result, residents were left with no time to minimise the losses to their property, livestock and crop land, and in some cases to save their own lives.
Forty people were reported to have died in the floods.
Dangerously prone to flash floods
Hydropower plants account for around 30% of national output, with those in central areas responsible for some 8%.
However, plans for many new plants mean that the area’s contribution is set to increase.
Experts are alarmed at the consequences for a region that is dangerously prone to drought and flash floods.
They question the policy of power plants that are content to starve farmers of water during droughts, and then discharge torrents at the last minute as they run out of storage capacity during heavy rain.
Many conclude that the operators are motivated purely by profit and are entirely callous to the consequences of their actions.
“To maintain the generation of electricity, most hydropower reservoirs have to keep a high water level. If operators listened to their conscience and released water to meet people’s needs in dry seasons, they’d have to face loss of revenue,” says Cao Tran.
“We cannot say hydroelectric stations are indispensable just because they provide power and modernisation to people…… hydropower plants make profits from selling electricity to users, therefore in return, the power plant operators must guarantee the safety and interests of local residents, ” said blogger, Cao Huy Huan.
Mere miscoduct ?
Questions are now being raised about the economic benefits of such a power plant.
Ho Ho’s fiscal contribution is relatively small, while it provides power for less than one district, and yet its construction destroyed one thousand acres of local forest.
The flash flood in October was not the first time that such damage had been inflicted on nearby communities.
However, previous discharges have been treated by the government as mere misconduct that deserves only a mild reprimand.
Experts say that as long as power plants continue to abide by what they call “appropriate procedures”, they will continue to deny farmers water when they most need it and flood their land when they’re most vulnerable.
“Reservoir operators must calculate appropriate volumes of water storage based on hydro-meteorological forecasts and prepare plans for safe discharge before the typhoon season comes, so that reservoirs won’t overflow when river water surges…it is their obligation, not a voluntary act out of good will,” said an observer, Cao Huy Huan.
Residents live in fear
Many other power plants across the country are accused of similar disastrous policies.
Critics say it’s a business that takes no account of the lives of ordinary people.
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment has concluded that Ho Ho committed administrative offences.
It said the power plant failed to produce a yearly plan for flow regulation and to maintain a minimum flow in the downstream.
It issued a reprimand, but took no further disciplinary action.
“Without a fair and just review process and actions proportional to the damage caused by Ho Ho, treating the misconduct by the power plant’s operators merely as administrative offence…. will not send a strong warning message to other hydropower stations in the country, and does nothing to deter a repeat offence,” said environmental expert, Nguyen Thi Mai.
“Civilians are the only ones in jeopardy here, not government officers nor power plant operators. …what should be done right now is to sue this murdering hydropower plant,” she added.
People will continue to live in fear and insecurity in this and similar areas whenever there is a risk of flooding, observers say.
Precedent for more lives to be lost
“Much as we condemn the great risks of environmental degradation and flash flooding that a plethora of hydropower stations in central Vietnam is posing, what’s worse is the ruthless indifference of those who endorse construction and maintenance of power plants that are causing forests to disappear, rivers to wither and our people in central area to suffer,” said Cao Tran.
“What could be more terrifying than the decay of compassion toward our own kind? Treating human lives as something disposable? We thus cannot be lenient with signs of moral debasement as shown in the irresponsibility of hydropower plant operators,” he added.
The failure to prosecute the operators of the Ho Ho plant, say activists, effectively condones their actions, and sets a precedent for many more lives to be lost in future rainy seasons.