Confessions of a hydropower calamity in Vietnam

The good, the bad and the ugly sides of hydropower plants in the Central Highlands.

It’s not easy to put a number on how many hydropower plants there are in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, let alone pin down their locations.

According to the Central Highlands Steering Committee, there were 190 operational and planned plants scattered across the region back in 2005.

A man walks down the dry bed of the Serepok River past the Serepok 4A Hydropower Plant.

However, Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reported back in 2009 that authorities in three out of the five highland provinces had listed 257 hydropower projects both under construction and in operation, as well as 11 major plants in the region, accounting for 25 percent of the country’s power supply.

Nguyen Phan, then chief of the newspaper's regional bureau, was quoted as saying: “No experts or agencies have been able to help us map the locations of all the hydropower plants in the Central Highlands because there are so many of them."

It has got to the point that you can point at any area on the map and you’ll find a dam there.”

Nguyen Phan, head of Tuoi Tre newspaper's regional office

Independent sources have also found it difficult to come up with the exact number. PanNature, a Vietnamese environmental NGO, with the help of Google Earth and various public websites, had managed to gather information on 116 projects up to June 2016, but could only mark half of them on a map.

Hydropower projects in the Central Highlands based on PanNature’s dataset that is still under-construction

The Central Highlands are considered ideal for hydropower development. Four major rivers and their tributaries run through steep slopes in mountainous areas in the west to the lowlands in the east and the south, creating a steady flow of water to power the turbines at numerous plants.

Vietnam’s energy thirst to fuel recent economic growth has spurred intensive hydropower development across the country’s river network. With over 3,450 rivers and streams, hydroelectricity has traditionally been the largest contributor to the energy sector, generating over 40 percent of Vietnam’s total electricity output.

However, the hydropower construction boom, especially between 2011 and 2014, has had serious repercussions, prompting the government to tighten its grip on licensing new plants.

While big hydropower projects in Vietnam fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Industry and Trade, small dams (defined as those with a capacity of less than 30 MW) are managed by local authorities, which have become a matter of great concern due to loose management.

In 2014 alone, the Central Highlands scrapped plans for 117 out of 418 new projects, and shut down dozens of plants in the following years.

Dak Lak Province in August reported it had pulled the plug on 13 of its 22 current hydropower plants, and dropped 71 out of 79 such planned projects. Gia Lai Province has also teminated 17 of 74 planned small and medium-sized hydropower projects.

Yet new construction proposals are still flooding in, despite warnings that the region’s water potential is drying up.

The thirst

With an overcrowded network of dams, the water supply in the Central Highlands has become precarious. Droughts during the dry season have become more common in recent years. Big reservoirs constructed for hydropower production that in theory could serve irrigation instead store the precious water.

The Central Highlands is now more vulnerable than ever to climate change. In 2016, when Vietnam was struck by an historic drought, hundreds of reservoirs were down to about 30 percent to 40 percent of their capacity, and some dried up completely.

Two locals drive their motorbike on a parched stony bed of a reservoir in Ea H’leo District, Dak Lak Province. In March 2016, over 100 lakes, reservoirs, and streams in the province endured a severe drought, temporarily halting the operation of a series of small plants there.

At the beginning of the 2016 dry season, well diggers in Cu Jut District were at work around the clock at the Serepok 3 Reservoir.

The problem was worse for locals, who struggled to find water for their families and farms. Fields of rice, pepper and coffee were left to wither. Farmers had to sacrifice their crops and dig deeper to find water. 


The Buon Tua Srah Hydropower plant. The project was built on a branch of the Srepok River named Krong No in Nam Ka Commune, Dak Pak Province.

The forests

The pursuit of hydroelectricity in the Central Highlands has been at the expense of its natural forests. Green areas in one of Vietnam’s largest forest-covered regions have shrunk in recent years due to the arrival of plants and reservoirs.

“When you clear trees to build a dam, you also need to chop down more to make space for access roads," said Bao Huy from Tay Nguyen University. “This in turn attracts farmers, ranchers and illegal loggers to these parts of the natural forests, and triggers inevitable deforestation around the dam.”

A resident in Nam Ka Commune sprays chemicals to prepare for crops on a once-forested hill. Local authorities said since the Buon Tua Srah Hydropower plant was built, the forest adjoining the path that leads to the plant has been exposed to deforestation for farming.

Some of the dams have even been built on protected land. Yok Don National Park and the nature reserves in Chuyangsin and Nam Ka are now home to four big hydropower plants: Srepok 3, Srepok 4, KrongKma and Buon Koup.

Smaller projects have also tried to sneak into the middle of the forests in Dak Lak and Gia Lai. Although they were eventually called off, experts have warned there is nothing to stop them from being approved in the future. 

Google timelapse video shows the area around the Buon Tua Srah hydropower project.

A regulation that was introduced to force investors to replant the forests they destroyed elsewhere has long been criticized for being “meaningless.”

“It literally means that we are willing to trade biodiversity of natural forests for a poor, human-planted ones,” Bao Huy said. “Besides, how do we find new land for that? Everywhere else is already occupied by residential areas and farms.”

In fact, investors have been reluctant to comply: only 757 hectares (1,871 acres) of forests have been replanted for 22,770 hectares (56,265 acres) destroyed.

A resident in Nam Ka Commune sprays chemicals to prepare for crops on a once-forested hill. Local authorities said since the Buon Tua Srah Hydropower plant was built, the forest adjoining the path that leads to the plant has been exposed to deforestation for farming.

Vietnam's Forestry Administration recorded that, during the peak of the hydropower frenzy between 2008 and 2014, the Central Highlands lost 358,700 hectares (886,367 acres) of forests.


The displaced

26,000 households have fallen victim to the construction of 25 major hydropower plants in the Central Highlands in the past decade. Many of them are ethnic minority farmers, who lost their agricultural land and have been grappling to adapt to the new environment in resettlement sites.

Houses at a resettlement site built for the Serepok 3 Hydro Power Plant have been abandoned for four years. People said they had refused to move into the complex that cost over $1.3 million because it was built in an area where there was no chance of making a living and was often inundated after rain.

Experts note that while investors and local authorities always promise a better life for the evicted locals, the projects in reality have impoverished more people by taking away their water and their livelihood.

Soldiers help over a thousand houldholds in Dak Nen Commune relocate from the mouth of the Dak Drinh Revervoir in July 2013.

In the above photo, several temporary camps were set up for the residents in Dak Nen Commune while awaiting relocation. Four years after this photo was taken, 195 households had reportedly not been relocated due to land compensation issues.

The project has been making headlines lately after fraud charges were brought against five local officials regarding land compensation, allegations that involve over $1.1 million in losses to the state budget.

The dam at Ia Krel 2 Hydropower Plant in the Central Highlands province of Gia Lai broke in June 2013, causing a flash flood that claimed 10 hectares (25 acres) of farmland. Two months later, the dam burst again.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc instructed the Central Highlands to remove projects that were detrimental to water flow, the environment and the lives of local residents. Ia Krel 2 was one of the first to go. The authorities decided to terminate the plant in August.


Thanh Nguyen, Nhung Nguyen

Interactive graphics by Ha Phuong

The Serepok 3 Plant in Cu Jut District, Dak Nong Province.

By Ha Phuong, Nhung Nguyen, Thanh Nguyen