Historic floods show true cost of Vietnam's cheap coal

Vietnam’s coal industry was hit by one of its worst environmental disasters this year after torrential rain flooded its coal hub in the northeast Quang Ninh province, causing landslides and toxic coal ash spills.
Tan Qiuyi Channel NewsAsia 15 Oct 15;

MONG DUONG: Months after the flood, housewife Dao Thi Tuyet’s neighbourhood in northeast Vietnam is unrecognisable. The muddy stream running past her front door used to be the main road.

Record rains lashed the mining town of Mong Duong in July, causing a landslide of coal ash that swept through Tuyet’s community of 100 households.

“We told each other: ‘Just run! How to save anything when the sludge and rocks are falling down?’ I’ve never felt terror like that before,” said Tuyet.

The deluge came from the mountain of coal waste right next to the neighbourhood, and questions remain over the cause of the spill. Residents say the dump site did not have a visible dam or retaining wall.

Mong Duong is one of the many towns across Vietnam’s vast Quang Ninh province where coal is at the heart of the local economy.

Every resident Channel NewsAsia spoke to in the area has a father, son, wife, or mother working in the coal sector. The recent coal ash spill has destroyed their homes, but the question is what can a town like Mong Duong do if it does not mine its greatest, if not only, asset.

“Mong Duong isn’t a place that can rely on tourism or other industries,” said Pham Ngoc Lu, deputy chairman of the Mong Duong People’s Committee. “The coal sector’s labour force is what drives production and consumption here.”

According to a government forecast, Vietnam’s need for energy will jump from the current 35 gigawatts to 120 gigawatts of total capacity by 2030, and energy authorities plan to dramatically expand coal power generation to meet that demand.

Greenpeace says this will produce 30 million tonnes of toxic coal ash a year, threatening public health and putting Vietnam at risk of more environmental disasters.

Activists call for a switch to renewable energy like wind and solar, but energy experts say there are no easy answers to Vietnam's exponential need for electricity.

“Wind generation only works when the wind is blowing and solar only when the sun is shining. If that’s not happening, you still need to meet demand,” said Franz Gerner, energy coordinator of Wold Bank Vietnam.

“You need to have back-up generation, so you still need your conventional thermal plants to provide power if the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. Providing that back-up generation is costly.”

Experts say coal is only cheaper because its environmental harm is not accounted for in government budgets.

“We don’t internalise the cost of damage to people’s health, we haven’t internalised the cost of air pollution - increasingly a serious issue in large urban areas in Vietnam,” said Andrew Spezowka, a specialist on green growth and sustainable development at the United Nations Development Programme.

“We don’t have the right economics around the issue. Until we deal with that, renewable energy will simply not be competitive.”

July’s devastating rains in the northeast of the country are said to occur once every 40 years. “It may happen again, maybe another bigger one. We cannot prevent it,” said GreenID executive director Nguy Thi Kanh.

Tuyet is still picking up the pieces of the last disaster; it is uncertain if families like hers can survive the next big storm.

- CNA/ec