Coal-power complex brings misery and ecological risk to local people in Mekong’s Delta

A view of the eroded beach looking from the site of the seaport now under construction for the Duyen Hai power station. (Photo by Hoang Duong.)

2nd November 2014, Huong Duong, Mekong Commons

Introduction

Three coal-fired energy plants have started construction in the coastal Trà Vinh province of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Called the Duyên Hải coal plants, together they form the Duyên Hải Power Station with a total planned capacity of 4,400 MW at a total cost of over US$ 3 billion.

Located in Mu U hamlet, Dan Thanh commune, Duyên Hải District, Trà Vinh Province, the power station complex also includes a seaport coal terminal, to be built by China Communications Construction Company. Together the three plants will burn about 12 million tonnes of coal and oil per year to generate electricity.

As with the other delta provinces, Trà Vinh province is enmeshed in the deltaic tributary branches as the Mekong River flows into the sea. The main livelihoods in this province are shrimp farms, paddy fields, and orchards including watermelon. This area is mostly populated by diverse ethnic groups including ethnic Kinh, Chinese and Khmer who have been living together for many generations.

The construction of the enormous coal-based energy infrastructure in this area has raised concern over the effects of pollution on the coastal and deltaic ecosystems and the adverse consequences to the farming and fishing-based livelihoods of the people living in the province.

The location of Dân Thành anh Trường Long Hòa communes in Trà Vinh province, Mekong Delta, Vietnam. (Source: http://s263.photobucket.com/user/banlienlacsinhvientravinh/media/547_tra-vinh_1187248563-1.jpg.html)

Coal complex

The coal and energy complex is being promoted by Tra Vinh provincial government that has been encouraging investment in industrial parks, canals for cargo vessel transport and coal fired-plants for the industrial development of Vietnam.

The details of the three Duyen Hai coal plants under construction are:

1. The 1,245 MW Duyen Hai 1 coal plant: Costing US$1.4 billion, it’s considered as one of the biggest of China’s energy investments in Vietnam. It was started in 2010 with a total planned capacity of 1,245 MW. The plant will be owned by the Electricity of Vietnam (EVN) but the engineering contractor is China’s Oriental Power Group and is slated to start operations in 2015.

2. The 1,200 MW Duyen Hai 2 coal plant started construction around 2010 by the Malaysian company Teknik Janakuasa, a subsidiary of the MMC Corporation Berhad. The French multinational energy company Alstom has been awarded the construction contract 1.

3. The 1,245 MW Duyên Hải 3 costing US$1.5 billion is built by a consortium of Chinese companies: Chengda Engineering, Dongfeng Electric Corporation, the Southwest Electric Power Design Institute (SWEPDI) (a subsidiary of the China Energy Engineering Group), and Zhejiang Electric Power Construction. It is expected to begin operational in 2015.

The project is a collaboration between EVN and the consortium of Chinese companies by Engineering, Procurement and Construction contract (EPC contract) with 15% of investment contributed by EVN (with loans from Vietinbank – Vietnam Joint Stock Commercial Bank for Industry and Trade). The investment from Chinese companies is sourced from the Bank of China, China Development Bank (CDB), and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC). A recent meeting in October 2014 suggested that the capacity of the coal plants may be expanded up to 2000 MW.

Apart from these three power plants, construction has also begun on a US$280 million coal seaport with a capacity for 30,000 deadweight tonnes (DWT) cargo vessels in April 2013. Being built by China Communications Construction, it is expected to be completed by the end of 2015. It will be capable of handling 12 million tons of coal per year for consumption by the three power plants. Also being built are canals for cargo vessels navigation from the Hau River to the project complex.

According to the website of DANKA, the coal supplier for the power plants, the company plans to import coal from Australia and Indonesia for the Duyen Hai 3 coal plant.

According to the Energy Master Plan VII of EVN, approved by the Prime Minister of Vietnam in 2011, investments in electricity are needed to meet the country’s growing consumption of energy. Duyen Hai 1 is expected to ensure the goal of electricity development in Vietnam until 2015 by contributing 600 MW to the national grid by 2015.

In 2014, EVN announced that they will allocate VND 8,178 billion (Vietnam Dong, about US$400 million) as their share of the investment; they are expected to source this through an overseas development loan.

Resettlement issues

The infrastructure projects relocated people from Duyen Hai complex coal plant to Mu U hamlet resettlement area and acquired land for the coal plants and the sea port. 78 households were resettled to date for the coal plant 4 years ago, and at present people are being resettled for the coal port.

Although people have been given homes in the Mu U resettlement area and some of them were able to buy some farming land near to the resettlement area, severe land erosion caused by the loss of sand dunes that have been removed to build the coal port as well as rising tides now regularly flood this land in Duyên Hải district. This has resulted in resettled people losing access to it.

Furthermore, the houses provided in the resettlement area are very small, about 100 meter square. On average, residences of the local people (including farmland) used to be about 4-5,000 square meters, with some houses as big as 14,000 square meters.

The situation becomes critical in the monsoon seasons with heavy storms. Since 2011, the communities have complained repeatedly to the local authorities. But the only solution proposed by the government is they will provide a new resettlement area called Con Trung and will relocate the affected people.

Local farmers have built fences using dried leaves to replace the eroded sand dunes and to protect their watermelon field. (Photo by Hoang Duong.)

Ecological and livelihood impacts

Local people who have not been resettled usually grow two crops of watermelon and one crop of sweet potatoes every year. All the households in the area – about 40 in total – have shrimp farms and also benefit from the delta’s mangrove forest. They live approximately 2 kilometer from the power station complex in the adjacent Trường Long Hòa commune.

The construction of the power complex together with the deep water seaport 10 km offshore is using sand from the area and is leading to the disappearance of sand dunes. Since the area comprises many shrimp raising ponds, the construction has required large amounts of sand to drain and fill these ponds. This is also leading to the collapse of many sand dunes on the beach. Without the natural protection from the rising tides offered by sand dunes, the entire area is facing increased risks from tidal erosion and flooding.

At present, at least 35 households in Trường Long Hòa commune are facing the impacts of floods during the last two years. Many people also reported that they are unable to grow anything since without the protection of the sand dunes, they face increased land slides, soil erosion and strong winds and tides especially in the rainy season.

The strong tides and coastal inundation have destroyed the shrimp farms and crops since every evening, the tide brings water into their houses. Many households had 4 công (1 công is 1000 square meters) of land. Now, after the tidal floods have inundated their lands, they have only 0,5 công left for farming. Many cannot get loans from the bank since they don’t have enough land for mortgage. Now only those households that possess a boat can still earn a living. The remaining people have been forced to change their livelihoods to become traders or labor; some others could buy land in another part of the delta for cultivation. Some households have left the area because they’re afraid of also losing not just their lands, but also their lives, to the floods.

Many young people are leaving the villages to seek work as paid labor in the coal plant or migrating to other towns for jobs including as traders. Many people are also anxious to get the newly promised land in the resettlement area while the older people are nervous about moving to a new place and starting life all over again when they don’t have any land as before.

One of the fishers (name withheld) told the author: “I cannot make money from my shrimp-farm anymore. The crab and shrimp I raise is just enough for my family.”

Another older farmer said he is very sad at losing so much land: “I used to have 7 công of mangrove forest and 7 công of farmland. Now I only have 2 công because of the land erosion. I don’t know what to do, my crops are damaged [by strong winds and tidal inundation]. Now my family is in debt. We can’t even get a loan from the bank because they don’t accept our land as mortgage since it gets flooded all the time.”

A young fisher trying his luck on the eroded beach. (Photo by Hoang Duong.)

Conclusion

The construction of the deep seaport and the power complex has resulted in severe social and ecological impacts for Tra Vinh province, even as the power is intended to be fed into the national grid to develop the Mekong Delta area. In this era of climate change, Vietnam is considered as one of the countries facing the highest risks from coastal storm surges and tidal wave inundation. Meanwhile, this massive energy infrastructure built along the coast is accelerating soil erosion and tidal inundation. Although promoted as an investment, the local government may end up having to spend more on resolving the environmental and social costs of this project including reparations and compensation for the thousands of households being affected by the complex.

Rather than costly investments in fossil-fuel and coal powered plants with its tremendous ecological and social costs, it may be better for Vietnam’s long-term energy policy to depend on renewable energy options, especially supporting local villages to manage small-scale solar or wind energy plants that can bring power to the people in more ways than one.