Vietnam Dam Dooms Remote Town

MUONG LAY ~ Over the past 15 years, this remote town has lost its original name and half its people. Those left behind know what awaits their homes: submersion beneath Vietnam’s largest dam.

By 2010, Muong Lay will be at the bottom of the giant reservoir of a hydropower project to fuel economic growth in cities and industrial parks far away from this northwestern region, one of the country’s poorest.

Vietnam’s communist leaders have promised to compensate and resettle the 10,000 residents of this bleak town, but for many here, hopes have dimmed like the street lamps that no longer light the main street at night.

For centuries, the waters and alluvial soils of the Da River, also named the Black River, have brought life to this region near the borders of China and Laos, a bumpy 500-kilometre drive from Hanoi.

Now the economic potential of the waterway has spelled its death sentence.

In Vietnam, a poor but fast-growing economy still hobbled by electricity shortages in homes and factories, the US$2.6-billion project promises to help meet national power demand that is now growing by 15 percent a year.

The 215-metre dam wall will create a lake that will swallow 18,000 hectares of mountain land and forest, driving turbines that are projected to generate 2,400 megawatts of power by 2015.

The dam will displace 94,741 people, by official count, many from the Hmong, Thai and other ethnic minorities, in the largest resettlement scheme in Vietnam’s history.

The state says the people have nothing to fear and has promised them new homes across three provinces, vocational training and compensation including 20 kilograms of rice per person per month for two years.

“The authorities will provide financial help for those who want to change their livelihood, and each family will receive at least 0.45 hectares of land,” said Vo Hong Thanh, who runs the Dien Bien Phu provincial resettlement scheme.

“We will do everything that is necessary.”

But on the main street of Muong Lay, the mood swings between skepticism about the government promises and a sense of quiet resignation.

“It’s a project of the Vietnamese state; one cannot oppose it,” said Nguyen Trung Thanh, a 48-year-old mechanic and father of two who lives in a clay house by the river bridge here.

“On television they always promise us a beautiful future. But we’ve heard too many promises and too many nice speeches.”

Asked about the relocation scheme, he said: “Nothing has started. We don’t have any concrete information.”

On the question of where he would like to move his family, he shrugged. “We can’t choose. There are no more good places for everyone anyway.”

And on the pledge of government aid, he scoffed: “Corruption is inevitable.”

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