Hoa Binh Dam, Vietnam

The Hoa Binh hydroelectric dam is the most significant resource project in Vietnam. Though it has transformed northern Vietnam’s electrical energy sector, the Hoa Binh hydroelectric project has also created the greatest combined social and environmental displacements in the country since the end of the Vietnam War[1]. This dam and its impact on indigenous people exemplify a wider complication in Vietnam, in which developmental and environmental objectives contradict one another, as well as national and local interests.

Hoa Binh Dam
Hoa Binh Hydroelectric Dam. (Wikipedia, 2016). [Wikipedia, 2016].

Hoa Binh Dam in Vietnam
Hoa Binh Dam in Vietnam. (Google maps, 2016). [Google maps, 2016].
The Hoa Binh hydropower project is located on the Black River 70 kilometers west of Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam[2]. It was constructed as a multipurpose dam for electricity generation, flood control, irrigation, and navigation[3]. The project was financed by the former Soviet Union[4] largely due to the fact that the Soviet Union supported Vietnam’s communist state during the Cold War era. Today the Hoa Binh dam is the largest hydroelectric dam in Vietnam[5], as well as the entirety of Southeast Asia[6][7]. It is now government owned and operated by Vietnam Electricity (EVN)[8]. The dam is highly successful in providing electricity, it covers one third of the production of electricity of the country. However in the process, it significantly transformed natural habitats and displaced plant, human, and animal communities[9].

Hoa Binh Dam in relation to Hanoi
Hoa Binh Dam in relation to Hanoi. (Google maps, 2016). [Google maps, 2016].
The Hoa Binh hydropower project has several significant benefits:

  • Energy production
  • Revenue
  • Flood control
  • Irrigation[10]

However it is important to recognize who receives these benefits. The energy production is advantageous for all homes and businesses in the big cities that rely on energy for production. This, however, does not apply to the ethnic minorities who were forcefully displaced by the dam’s construction. Some of these minority groups have never seen electric light in their life[11].

Not only does the energy go to those unaffected by the construction of the dam, but the profits do as well. As a state-owned corporation, the government collects the profits from the Hoa Binh hydroelectric power generation.

Other than the primary function of electricity generation and profit making, the dam also significantly aids in flood control and supplementary irrigation of about 30,000 ha in the Red River Delta downstream of the dam[12]. Again, providing no reward to displaced peoples[13].

Hoa Binh Hydroelectric Dam
“Hoa Binh Dam.” (Vietnam National Committee on Large Dams and Water Resources Development, 2016). [Vietnam National Committee on Large Dams and Water Resources, 2016].
The social and environmental impacts of the Hoa Binh dam are extensive and diverse. Due to the inundation of land, 58,000 people were forcefully displaced. A larger number of people were affected as a result of encroachment of displaced populations on forest, land, and water resources[14]. This displacement greatly affected the livelihoods of ethnic minorities in the area. The inundated land was particularly fertile and people were forced into lands that were much less productive[15], farmers became landless and impoverished[16]. Most of the affected populations are members of the Vietnamese ethnic minority groups including Muong, Tay, White Thai, Black Thai, Hmong, and Dao[17].

The village of Luong Phong is a resettlement area in northeastern Vietnam for the Muong community that was displaced by the dam. The Muong’s original settlements were fertile rice land, in close proximity to forest resources, and maintained a reliable water supply[18]. The most radical change they faced after the construction of the dam was the move away from wet-rice cultivation[19]. The Muong lost their fertile wet-rice land and were forced to attempt farming dry land on steep slopes surrounding the reservoir. Rapid clearing of these slopes created deforestation and left soil fully exposed to erosion, lending to accelerated siltation of the reservoir[20]. Loss of fertility from erosion lead to further deforestation and low yields. Low yields meant that Muong farmers were forced into poverty[21]. This was true for resettled communities other than the Muong as well. The Muong community sacrificed their lands and livelihoods for national development and received very little in return.

Vietnamese ethnic minorities at the Bac Ha Can Cau Market
Vietnamese ethnic minorities at the Bac Ha Can Cau Market. (2014). [n.a., 2014].
In addition to losing their homes and lands, the Muong suffered from:

  • Malnutrition without their staple crops of rice, maize, and cassava,[22]
  • Water shortages,[23]
  • Inaccessibility of health centers,
  • Exacerbated health problems,[24][25]
  • Educational inaccessibility[26] and subsequent rising illiteracy[27][28]

The Luong Phong village exemplifies the direct and indirect social and environmental problems that resulted from the construction of the Hoa Binh reservoir. The experience of this village is representative of the other indigenous communities affected by the Hoa Binh reservoir. Luong Phong and most other displaced populations felt effects of displacement, extreme impoverishment, and un-sustainability.

Local ethnic peoples in the Bac Ha District at the Can Cau Market
Local people in the Bac Ha District. (2016). [N.a., 2016].
In order to understand Vietnamese policy regarding resettlement, it is important to know the history and legal aspects of land.

1980: The Socialist Republic of Vietnam adopted The New Constitution, which contained the provision that land belonged to the state[29]. This affected the resettlement of Hoa Binh hydroelectric project because land was not considered an asset belonging to a household. Therefore, the government was able to dispossess people of property without it being legally necessary to provide accurate or fair compensation[30].

1982: Resettlement was the responsibility of a provincial level managing Board including: Ministry of Forestry, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Irrigation, Ministry of Energy and provincial authorities[31]. These authorities commenced relocation in 1982.  Yen (2003) claims, “The concept of relocation was simply to transfer people from the future reservoir area to new places. The stability and restoration of income for the people had not been given any attention.”

1992: Land tenure reform occurred and brought a significant improvement in land management. Other laws followed that specified rights to people who have been assigned land, entitled people to compensation for land loss, and required investors to undergo an Environmental Impact Assessment before proceeding with projects[32].

1998: Future reforms occurred in after the World Commission on Dams was established[33]. Vietnam is now more committed to international processes and ‘best practices’[34].

World Commission on Dams
World Commission on Dams. (2000). [WCD 2000]
Some might argue that the Hoa Binh dam is an example of the resource curse. We would expect a location rich with resources to be profitable and conflict free, however this is often not the case. Vietnam is rich with a network of rivers and geography of steep inclination of mountains and hills, which makes harnessing rivers for electricity generation technically advantageous[35]. However this resource potential led to the creation of a highly controversial hydroelectric dam. The resource curse arises out of the issue of access and ownership. Communities in close proximity to the resources often do not have access to them or own them. Therefore, resources are taken away from these communities creating conflict and unrest. The communities originally privileges with this resource find themselves “cursed” instead and left to bear the costs that it brings.

The single most generalizable lesson to be learned from the Hoa Binh experience is one that can be applied to countless other situations all over the world, this is the need for participation of affected people in the planning and provision for resettlement and reconstruction of livelihoods. Many of the mistakes made in the case of Hoa Binh stem from an over-centralized management structure that failed in large part to take into account the realities of making a living in an agro-ecological setting.

The experience of the Hoa Binh makes us wonder if the broader benefits that accrue from large-scale projects can be directed in a way as to benefit those who have to pay a heavy price. Can large-scale projects such as this one be sustainable when the combined social and environmental impacts threaten the viability or longevity of the project itself? Will the resource curse continue to plague resource-rich countries?

Colorful ethnic people at the local market
Children at the local market. (2010). [Vietnam Nomad Trails, 2010].

[1] Hirsch, P. (1992). Social and environmental implications of resource development in Vietnam: The case of Hoa Binh Reservoir. Sydney, AU: Research Institute for Asia and the Pacific, University of Sydney & Institute of Science Management. 6.

[2] Yen (2003): 22

[3] Middleton (2014)

[4] Middleton (2014). Dao (2010): 330

[5] Dao (2010): 330

[6] Yen, C. T. T. (2003). Towards Sustainability of Vietnam’s Large Dams: Resettlement in Hydropower Projects. Stockholm, Sweden: Royal Institute of Technology. 22.

[7] Yen (2003): 22

[8] Vietnam Electricity. (2014). “Overview of Vietnam electricity.” Retrieved from http://www.evn.com.vn/News/Gioi-thieu-chung/Tong-quan-ve-EVN/Tong-quan-ve-Tap-doan-Dien-luc-Viet-Nam.aspx

[9] Dao (2010): 332

[10] Yen (2003): 22

[11] Hirsch (1992): 10

[12] Yen (2003): 22

[13] Hirsch (1992): 9

[14] Middleton (2014)

[15] Dao (2010): 331

[16] Dao (2010): 331

[17] Hirsch (1992): 10

[18] Hirsch (1992): 10

[19] Hirsch (1992): 10

[20] Hirsch (1992): 10

[21] Dao (2010): 332

[22] Yen (2003): 23

[23] Hirsch (1992): 11

[24] Dao (2010): 332

[25] Hirsch (1992): 10

[26] Dao (2010): 332

[27] Hirsch (1992): 10

[28] Yen (2003): 23

[29] Tuyen, N. Q. (2010). “Land Law Reforms in Vietnam: Past & Present.” ASLI Working Paper No. 15. Retrieved from https://law.nus.edu.sg/asli/pdf/WPS015.pdf

[30] Dao (2010): 330

[31] Yen (2003): 24

[32] Dao (2010): 328

[33] Dao (2010): 328

[34] Dao (2010): 328

[35] Hirsch (1992): 9



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