Dec 5, 2012

Vietnam - True lies

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It broke out as the most stunning news ever when initial reports had it that a truck had knocked down a hydropower dam under construction in the Central Highlands province of Kon Tum last Thursday.

As investigative reporters jumped in, the story turned out to be big lies, from reports of the project owner on the nature of the accident to the whole process of construction. The aftertaste, however, is a grave public concern over how the case is to be handled and how their safety is protected now that hundreds of hydropower projects are springing up nationwide.

The dam at Dak Glei Hydropower project collapsed last Thursday, but the deadly accident was totally covered up beyond the public knowledge, until it was reported in Tuoi Tre this Monday. Le Ba Thanh, director of Hong Phat Dak Glei Company as the project owner, is quoted by the newspaper as explaining that “a truck transporting rock had hit the dam, causing it to crumple in a chain reaction.”

Local officials when asked by Tuoi Tre about the incident admitted that they did not know about the case until after media reports had come out.

The dam was said to be 80 meters long and 20 meters high, and a section of 60 meters was knocked down in the accident that killed one driver. Thanh insisted that the dam was built in conformity with the quality norms and the technical design, while Nguyen Quang Oanh, vice chair of Dak Glei District, asserted in Tuoi Tre that “it is just a labor accident.”

Initial details from the project owner are apparently incredible, as a truck by no means could demolish a dam of thousands of cubic meters of concrete. So the investor’s explanation becomes the topic of sarcastic comments in the local media.

“After knocking down 60 meters of the concrete dam, the truck still looks safe and sound, with slight bruises in the windshield only,” says Dan Tri. The online paper challenged the project owner why the case was covered up for several days, and was wrongly informed that it happened last Friday, while the next two days were weekends so the company could not promptly inform relevant State agencies. It fact, the case took place on Thursday. Dan Tri also cited figures from police later on that the dam is up to 109 meters long, not 80 meters as reported by the project owner.

Feedbacks from readers in Dan Tri show angry protests from the public. One reader says the truck knocking down the dam is the worst explanation ever heard of in the construction industry, while another likens it to an ant killing an elephant, and another sarcastically compares it to a bicycle hitting a high-rise building and reducing it to rubble.

As the case unravels itself, the lies from the project owner turn more serious.

Tran Trong Dung, an official of Dak Glei District, says in Tuoi Tre that when hearing of the incident, he phoned the company to ask for details, and was reassured by the company’s director Le Ba Thanh that “it is just a minor landslide and there is nothing serious.”

Meanwhile, Le Van Thinh, an official with the Ministry of Construction, stresses in Tuoi Tre that the investor has violated law when failing to report the case to the ministry and local agencies within 24 hours as regulated.

Vietnamnet even doubts local officials’ claim that they did not know of the case soon after it took place. The online paper refers to a source at the district police verifying that the investor did call the police right after the incident, and rescue teams were sent to the scene by grassroots authorities on the day of the accident.

In a press meeting on Thursday, Kon Tum Province officials stressed that the project owner had not adhered to the original design.

“As per the design consulted with the Kon Tum Department of Industry of Trade, the dam must be built with concrete, but checks these days show that the internal part of the dam was filled with soil and sand,” Bui Van Cu, deputy director of the department, is quoted by Lao Dong.

Despite all the lies surrounding the collapsed dam incident, local media considers it a big luck as the reservoir has not started storing water.

“Luckily, the reservoir able to contain 1.7 million cubic meters of water had not stored water, otherwise the dam collapse would be a catastrophe,” says Thanh Nien.

Tuoi Tre says “if the dam collapsed while storing water for power generation, thousands of people might have their properties all swept away, and human losses would have been inevitable.”

It is also a big luck that the case may help wage a war against widespread lies in many respects of the economy, especially in the construction of facilities that are critical to the public safety.

Lao Dong questions how many dams in the country are built without steel and concrete, referring to the partial collapse of the Dak Rong 3 hydropower dam in Quang Tri Province months ago.

Similarly, Tuoi Tre says the Dak Glei incident pinpoints the loopholes in responsibility among local authorities, as the incident beyond their knowledge for several days shows the indifference to the lives and properties of thousands of people. “This indifference may lead to grievances of thousands of people when a certain hydropower project starts operation with a dam ready to collapse at any time.”

Son Nguyen

The Saigon Times Daily

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