Counting the costs of resettlement: Seven years of resettled life from the Pleikrong dam in Vietnam

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In Vietnam, hydropower has seen rapid growth in the past decade and now generates more than a third of the country’s electricity. By 2017, there were an estimated 400 plus dam projects in operation across the country.

The costs for building hydropower plants are not small. The dam expansion has come at a huge cost to local communities, especially ethnic groups, who are displaced by these projects as the impact on the people resettled for these dams is immense.

Many have been relocated to areas with poor, infertile soils where farming is almost impossible. In many projects, people who stayed on near the dam have experienced flash floods caused by flawed dam-building and lack of oversight. More often, the resettlement areas are located far away from the rivers and forests that most ethnic communities in mountainous areas depend upon for their livelihoods. Cut off from their livelihood sources, and unable to do farming, many ethnic people are forced to move to towns and cities and work for cheap wages with long, hard hours.

One recent example of this kind of impacts is the 110 MW Pleikrong hydropower plant built at the confluence of the Krong Poko and Dak Bla rivers in the central highlands of Vietnam. Costing US$ 204 million, the dam is the third plant located on the Se San River in Vietnam and is managed and operated by the Ialy Hydropower Company. A total of 6,000 ethnic people were resettled and 5,328 hectares of land were taken up by the project.

A difficult resettlement process

Dak Wot village is a Ro Ngao ethnic community of 70 households in Ho Moong commune, Sa Thay district, Kon Tum province. In 2010, this community was made to resettle to make way for the Pleikrong hydropower plant. During last year, I visited this community and listened to their stories (all real names of interviewees are withheld).

When I interviewed a village leader in April 2018, he told me about the community’s previous lives and livelihoods in the area now submerged by the Pleikrong reservoir.

“Before we resettled here, we all used to good farmland in our previous village. Some households had up to five hectares. Many people had orchards and coffee trees. That means their garden alone was as large as 0.2 hectares.

“Before the move, I was told by the government officers that we would have a better life after resettlement. The project officers held meetings with the village women’s group and other community groups to get their agreement for relocation. Some of the village representatives even visited the resettled site. They saw that the project offered them concrete houses in the lowland semi-urban style which was very different from their own traditional style that they much preferred.”

The relocated communities often prefer to build and live in their traditional-style house next to the concrete house provided by the project. Since the concrete houses have many structural problems due to shoddy construction. (Photo by Pham Van Dung.)

Many villagers did not want to leave their homes and farmlands. However, they were told they had no choice since their houses would be submerged by the reservoir.

One woman in Ho Moong commune told me that her family could not get fair compensation: “I had to ask officials for compensation, but they got angry with me and made me ashamed for asking. At that time, I was cultivating cassava and did not have any fruit trees or other crops. I could only receive VND 3 million (approximately US$150) as compensation. The compensated value was then further deducted because I received one hectare of land in the resettlement area.”

Villagers were relocated to a barren area with houses built close to each other. The ground leveling activities removed all the fertile topsoil making it almost impossible to cultivate any crops. For villagers used to traditional ways of self-sufficient life depending on crops and forests, they were now thrown into a market economy where they had to use cash for purchasing food and other necessities. In the resettlement area, they had to spend more money for their needs even as the land yielded very little.

An older woman told me: “Now I need to buy food for my children to eat. The soil is poorer than our previous village. We even cannot grow cassava here.” Many villagers are now in debt as they need to borrow money. Meanwhile, the shortage of land and the denser population is leading to conflicts as more people try to find work to do using scarce resources.

The fields in the relocated areas have poor soil making it difficult to get good crop yields. (Photo by Pham Van Dung.)

It has now been seven years since the project promised the resettled people would get a better life than before. Many of the young people have migrated to the cities to work in factories, others have moved to other countries, some to nearby places like Lao PDR and others as far away as Saudi Arabia to work as laborers or maids.


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