An emergency request to release more dam water to alleviate a severe drought in central Vietnam has not been met due to a tug-of-war between local authorities and the hydropower plant’s operators.
More than a month after Deputy Prime Minister Hoang Trung Hai issued a directive to the Dak Mi 4 hydropower dam in Quang Nam province near Danang city to release water to address critical shortages in downstream areas, the issue remains unresolved.
More than 1.7 million people living along the Vu Gia River in Danang and neighboring Quang Nam have been reeling from water shortages since the beginning of the year that are threatening 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres) of summer crops.
The authorities have asked the dam operator, Dak Mi 4 Hydropower Joint Stock Co., to release water in line with a directive made three years ago, but the company argues that it is not obliged to do so and that it needs the water for generating electricity.
The endless debate has left officials warning that the issue has to be resolved at the next sitting of the National Assembly, the country’s parliament, in May.
The Dak Mi 4 dam issue underscores a larger conflict of balancing water needs between agriculture and electricity generation, said Pham Hong Giang, a senior official in charge of dams and water resources.
“There is a problem with managing water used for electricity generation and water needed for other purposes,” Giang, the president of the Vietnam National Committee on Large Dams and Water Resources Development, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
“We have not done well in this respect," he said.
Danang and Quang Nam officials plan to seek the intervention of the Ministry of Industry and Trade to pressure the dam operator to discharge water into the Vu Gia to alleviate water shortages that will harm this year’s crops.
The Irrigation Department this month instructed the the Dak Mi 4 and the nearby A Vuong hydropower plant to discharge 39 and 50 cubic meters of water per second, respectively, from May 15 to 30, but it remains unclear whether the volume will be enough to ease the drought.
A senior agriculture official has charged that Dak Mi 4 Hydropower Joint Stock Co. was holding on to water in the reservoir at the expense of local agriculture.
“The water level in Dak Mi 4 reservoir is very high, but they don’t release it,” Deputy Director of Danang’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development Huynh Van Thang Thang said at one of several meetings in March aimed at ending the row, state media reported.
“This is to ensure the company’s benefit. But the Dak Mi 4 has to return the water to us,” he said.
“Danang could face the worst drought in 40 years,” Thang warned.
He said the hydropower plant, which began operation last year, had not properly carried out government orders and allowed the dam to redirect too much water from the Vu Gia into another river, the Thu Bon.
If the dam continues to direct water from the Vu Gia to the Thu Bon, water levels fall too low for downstream farm irrigation pumps to operate, he said.
Reservoir level low
The ongoing drought has also impacted water levels at the dam, which had already released some water in response to appeals from local officials, Deputy Director of the Dak Mi 4 Hydropower Joint Stock Co. Dao Minh Tien told the March meeting.
Levels have dropped to just 10 meters (32 feet) above the “dead level” of 250 meters (820 feet) at which it can no longer produce electricity, he said, according to state media.
The dam had released water 14 times in March at the request of Danang and Quang Nam authorities, preventing the 190-megawatt plant from operating at full capacity, he said.
Water research official Vu The Hai, the director of Vietnam's Institute for Water and Environment, said other dams in the region were facing similar problems this month.
"Central Vietnam is facing a severe drought, and water going into hydroelectric dam reservoirs is very limited compared to the capacity they were designed for," he told RFA's Vietnamese Service.
The Dak Mi 4 dam has been a source of contention between local authorities and hydropower officials even before its construction began in 2008, with Danang officials making numerous requests to the Ministry of Industry and Trade to delay the project.
In 2010, the government ordered investors to add a sluice gate to the dam design so that it could discharge up to 25 cubic meters per second of water to avoid water shortages in downstream areas.
But power plant officials have said the directive only pertains to the design of the dam, and that there is no legal obligation for them to discharge water in the dry season, according to Thanh Nien News.
Hydropower dams are crucial for Vietnam’s energy security, contributing about 30 percent of domestic electricity production, dams and water resources official Giang said.
“However, the rapid development of hydroelectricity power plants in the past decades has revealed some conflicts," he said.
Reported by An Nguyen for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.