Deputy Director of the Viet Nam Environment Administration Le Ke Son spoke to Cong An Nhan Dan (People’s Police) newspaper about environmental impact assessments for hydro-power plants.
Under the current system, local authorities are delegated the function of evaluating environmental impact assessment (EIA) reports for small-and-medium sized hydro-projects. Many experts have pointed out that this has led to the unjust approval of too many projects, leading to extreme environmental repercussions. How do you justify this?
At present, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment is responsible for evaluating the EIA of big hydro power projects – those with a capacity of over 60MW and projects which might possibly affect national parks and reserves.
The local authorities, therefore, are in charge of evaluating the EIA for the smaller projects.
I have to admit that at local level, the authorities approve projects too easily. This is because of the limited capacity of their human resources. Meanwhile, evaluating EIA is in essence a difficult field which requires a high level of expertise.
EIAs are viewed as an important tool to hold investors accountable, but post-evaluation investigations have shown that at least 10 per cent of EIA reports are not eligible. What are the common problems with them?
It is true that an EIA is an important tool for investors to fulfill their environmental responsibilities and for managerial authorities to minimise errors.
However, many EIA reports were not completed properly. For example, the investors of some hydro-power projects only reported that the area needed to build a reservoir while failing to mention that other roads and buildings also required building. This in turn resulted in an incomplete report.
In addition, because project development inevitably means cutting down some forest trees, there is a principle that the investors have to grow an equivalent number of trees elsewhere. However, the local authorities could not allocate land for this.
Finally, many of the reports should have been written from a wider perspective. For example, if you develop a hydro-power plant in the upstream of a river, you must take into consideration the impact on other plants that already exist downstream. Too many EIAs have failed to do this.
There is a view that EIAs are a scientific tool and should be kept that way. We should not transform them into another administrative procedure which may cause unnecessary red tape for investors.
Some people suggest that investors only need to do a preliminary EIA when submitting their proposal. If they get the approval then they will be requested to submit a comprehensive EIA. What do you think about this approach?
This is a common practice internationally and it is in fact a good approach.There are many cases when investors have to spend a lot in conducting pre-feasibility studies. It will be worth the investment if they receive the green light, but what if they get a no? This would be a waste of time and money. That is why a preliminary EIA should be undertaken for projects that are deemed to see high risk, and if their proposal is approved then they can proceed with a more detailed evaluation.
There was a boom in hydro-power development in the past, triggered by the growing demand for electricity. At present, the amount of electricity generated is quite big and we have nearly tapped into the full hydro-power capacity of the rivers. In your view, do you think it is necessary to develop new hydro-power plants?
Many countries in the world stop developing hydro-power electricity because of the negative social and environmental impacts associated with them. I still support hydro-power, but I think the environmental impacts should be taken into careful consideration ahead of economic gains.
The Dong Nai 6 and 6A hydro-power projects have been in the spotlight for a while because local authorities oppose their development while the investor is determined to proceed. What is your opinion?
As of now, the investor is still in the process of finishing the EIA to submit to the ministry. The ministry has not evaluated it yet. The investors have to clarify information relating to the potential damage to the forests, how the plants would disrupt the flow of the river and their impact on the nearby Cat Tien National Park. The final call will be made by the National Assembly. — VNS