Compound landslide losses remind us to prepare better for disasters

By Nguyen Dong   October 16, 2020 | 04:03 pm PT
Learning Rao Trang 3 hydropower plant got hit by a landslide, Ta Van Chinh, from north central Thanh Hoa Province, rushed to central Thua Thien-Hue, 500 km away by bus.
Nguyen Dong

Nguyen Dong

The plant in Phong Xuan Commune of Phong Dien District, Thua Thien-Hue, was where his son worked.

Joining him on the journey was his brother-in-law Le Van Phung. Phung’s son also worked at Rao Trang 3. During the 10-hour bus ride, the two fathers grew even more confused and panicked due to conflicting reports from family members.

Chinh's son, Ta Van Nghia, is one of 17 workers reported buried by a landslide at Rao Trang 3 hydropower plant, located deep in the jungle.

At midnight Monday, a hill had collapsed onto the plant's operation center inside which the 17 were sleeping. Of the workers reported buried, two had been found dead. The other 15 remain unaccounted for.

In his 50s, the same as my father, Chinh got lost looking for his son, unable to communicate properly due to a speech impairment.

On Wednesday afternoon, when a body thought to be Nghia was found and brought to Binh Dien General Hospital in Huong Tra Town of Thua Thien-Hue, the two fathers immediately took xe om to the medical facility.

If it was truly Nghia, it would be a blessing for the family, since at least his remains had been found and could be taken home, the two maintained.

Arriving at the hospital in the afternoon, the pair had to wait until nightfall to identify the body.

"Nghia is 1.8 meters high and has two irregular teeth. The body in there is just around 1.7 meters high and has just one such tooth," the two confirmed shortly after exiting the mortuary.

But as the face of the victim was no longer intact, Chinh had to complete a DNA test to confirm if it was indeed his son.

Having yet to locate their missing sons, the restless fathers hoped they had indeed survived their ordeal.

Thousands of households in the central region have suffered power outages in the past week due to severe flooding, triggered by a northern cold spell entering the intertropical convergence zone over central Vietnam and causing abnormally heavy rains from October 6 to 13.

Due to flooding, over 135,000 homes were submerged under 0.3-4 meters of water, and nearly 46,000 people had to be evacuated.

Chinh is a rice farmer in Nga Phu Commune of Nga Son District in Thanh Hoa Province. In Nga Thai Commune next door, Phung’s family survives by growing sedge used for making mats.

My parents’ house is around five 5 km from theirs. Young people in my hometown generally have two ambitions: getting into college and finding a stable city job, or migrating somewhere to work, only returning home for Tet, or Lunar New Year, the biggest holiday in Vietnam.

The story of the 17 workers is even more tragic since a 21-member rescue team that had set out to verify reports of workers buried by the landslide got struck by the same calamity.

At midnight Tuesday, a landslide had buried the ranger station housing the entire rescue team. Only eight members managed to escape, the remaining 13 were confirmed dead by Thursday night, including Major General Nguyen Van Man, deputy commander of the 4th Military Region of Vietnam People's Army.

Armored vehicles, helicopters, service dogs and thousands of people were dispatched to aid the search, but only after the second landslide had trapped the first rescue team, causing 30 families nights of deep anguish.


Diggers aid the search for missing workers at Rao Trang 3 hydropower plant in Thua Thien-Hue Province, October 14, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Vo Thanh.

Located on a mountain range in Phong Xuan Commune, Rao Trang 3 hydropower plant is still under construction with a total investment of VND290.8 billion ($12.5 million) and a projected capacity of 11 MW. The project is expected to cover over 11 hectares (27.2 acres), including an 8.8-hectare reservoir, along with factories and other support structures.

Thua Thien-Hue Province approved three more hydropower plants to be built along the mountain range in 2008. All four projects are located in Phong Dien Nature Reserve, an ecological restoration area. Around 200 hectares of forest have been cleared to create dams.

It remains unclear how much electricity generated by these plants would feed the national grid annually, though patches of forest cut down, hills split, and people buried amid rock and soil are all very specific.

The lives of 30 families, in a blink, have been uprooted.

I am not using this terrible incident to highlight the negative effect of building hydropower plants here, even if the process of dam construction has an obviously negative impact.

We have not seen any clear benefits in job creation or socio-economic development from hydroelectric projects, yet the loss they cause is quite evident, along with the risk posed by dozens of forest-based dams spread densely across the country.

With diminishing forest coverage, those living downstream have had to endure flood upon flood over the years. What makes me wonder is that every time a storm from the East Sea (South China Sea internationally) is about to land, local authorities halt construction and evacuate people from areas vulnerable to landslides, though in the process overlooking hydropower projects.

On a good day, it takes around one hour to travel from Rao Trang 3 to the center of Phong Dien District by motorbike.

If regulations for natural disaster prevention had been effectively applied to hydropower projects still under construction, the 17 workers would have already been moved out of the jungle before flooding and landslides commenced.

If the workers had indeed been assigned to guard the project, they should have been equipped with satellite phones, since local connectivity is next to nothing, leaving the group with no means of contacting their superiors in case of any incident.

News of the landslide took nearly a day to reach local authorities, who responded in a rather haphazard way by sending in a rescue team without giving due consideration to the situation on the ground.

Helicopters could have immediately assessed conditions at the scene, providing food, water and means of communication to those stuck below.

Yet it was not until Wednesday morning that helicopters were dispatched for this purpose, too late to save the 13 rescuers.

Right now, Ta and Phung are losing interest in rescue efforts.

All they want is to see their sons’ faces, though they no longer look the same. All these deaths will prove meaningless when measured against unsustainable socio-economic development and rescue efforts that fail to place human lives first.

*Nguyen Dong is a journalist. The opinions expressed are his own.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
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