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Regional Outlook : Is Asia Robbing Rural Poor to Power the Rich? : Vietnam's Hoa Binh dam displaced 50,000 and wrecked forests. Critics ask whether hydroelectric energy is worth it.


HOA BINH, Vietnam — As recently as two years ago, the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi suffered the daily ignominy of crippling power shortages that hobbled industry and left residents to sit in the dark most nights of the week.

The power outages are now just a distant memory, thanks to a massive $1-billion project in Hoa Binh--a two-hour drive southwest of the capital--that was built by an army of 30,000 workers guided by 1,000 experts from the old Soviet Union.

The 40-story-high Hoa Binh dam is the largest hydroelectric project in Southeast Asia and will put out a healthy 1,900 megawatts of electricity when the work is completed--enough even in energy-hungry Los Angeles to power nearly 2 million homes. The dam is also the largest industrial project ever undertaken in Vietnam, the last showpiece of Soviet aid before the collapse of communism brought an abrupt end to Moscow's overseas largess.

But in order to power the dam, authorities flooded some of the richest rice land in northern Vietnam to create a 75-square mile reservoir. Upward of 50,000 people were moved from their fertile valley farms to mountain villages and left to fend for themselves.

Today, more than four years after they were moved, the farmers eke out a pathetic living trying to grow cassava and tea on precipitous mountainsides. Many have resorted to eating tree bark or roots--and have caused calamitous deforestation around the lake as a result. Ironically, none of the resettled families has yet to receive any electricity.

"We can't feed our children anymore," said Dinh Van Thien, 58, a father of 10 who was once a relatively prosperous rice farmer. "We don't have a stable life here. We are hungry. We are very hungry."

Hoa Binh, rather than becoming the symbol of progress that its designers in Moscow once envisaged, has become a cautionary tale debated throughout Asia at a time when many countries in the region are considering investing massively in hydroelectric projects to meet their burgeoning energy needs. For most of these countries, electricity is the life blood fueling booming export-based industrial economies, and their power needs are expanding at a dizzying rate.

Advocates view hydroelectric power as a clean, renewable resource preferable to virtually any other form of electricity generation--better certainly when compared to the pollution of coal-fired plants and the dangers inherent in nuclear power.

But critics maintain that the huge dams involved in hydroelectric energy generation are destroying the last wilderness areas of Asia at a time when trees and arable land are in ever shorter supply. In essence, they say, the dams are robbing the rural poor to provide power to the urban rich.

A coalition of environmental groups and organizations representing rural farmers have managed to attract public attention to their cause in countries such as India and Thailand. It is the first time that such groups are being heard in the developing countries of Asia, which in the past have prized economic growth above all.

In India, opposition forces have mobilized to block the Sardar Sarovar dam, the first of a planned 30 dams being built across the Narmada River at an estimated cost of $9 billion.

In Thailand, a committee of countries along the famed Mekong River is to submit plans this week for the construction of a $2.7 billion hydroelectric project between Laos and Thailand. Plans for the dam, called Pa Mong, have been drastically scaled down to reduce the number of people resettled to about 50,000 from the earlier planned 350,000--a level the designers now admit was "unrealistic."

"I don't think these countries can afford to ignore the tremendous generating capacity of the seventh-largest river in the world," said Charles Lankester, a Canadian and former U.N. official who now heads the Mekong Committee, which is operated by Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. "It's a huge resource. Once the environmentalists look at some alternative sources, the feasibility of hydro will re-emerge."

The decision to press ahead with Pa Mong followed a decision by the World Bank in December to go ahead with funding for the Pak Mun dam being built near the Cambodian border by Thailand's Electricity Generating Authority, using World Bank funding.

Although Pak Mun would involve the resettlement of only about 245 families directly, environmentalists waged a long and bitter campaign to halt the dam. Thai authorities finally agreed to create a committee to monitor the environment as part of the deal, but the United States and Australia still cast rare dissenting votes when the issue was presented last year to the World Bank executive directors.

"The anti-dam movement in Thailand is quite strong," said Witoon Permpongsacharoen, head of the Bangkok-based Project for Ecology Recovery. "The dams are unacceptable from a broad social and environmental perspective. They always serve the city people who need the electricity."

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