Special Report: Mekong Basin - The Yali Falls Disaster And Its Aftermath


E.C. Chapman

On 4 March the unannounced release of water from Yali Falls Dam, in the mountainous terrain of Vietnam’s Central Highlands, led to a surge of water downstream in the Se San and to the river’s rapid rise beyond the international border, in Ratanakiri Province of Cambodia. Six villagers died, including three teenage girls who drowned when their boat overturned. The Governor’s Office of Ratanakiri Province called for an immediate apology by the Vietnamese authorities and for an investigation by the Mekong River Commission (MRC). Vietnam duly apologized and gave an assurance that the accidental release of water from Yali Falls dam would not be repeated, and the investigation took place in mid-March. On 29 March the scheduled meeting of the MRC Joint Committee in Ho Chi Minh City received reports from its Vietnam and Cambodia representatives, and from the MRC investigation team: it was agreed that on-site discussions should follow and that an ‘early warning’ system was essential to inform downstream villagers of expected rises in river level.

Initially the disaster attracted little attention except in the Phnom Penh press. At the end of March “Voice of Vietnam” radio announced the successful trial run of Yali’s hydropower station, without specific comment on the cross-border flooding a few weeks earlier. Almost simultaneously however, disturbing reports began circulating on international networks about Yali Falls and the next hydropower project to be built downstream, Se San 3. Here work was to begin with Asian Development Bank funding (US$80 million) before the end of 2000.

Then more information emerged. It was reported that the environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the Yali Falls project had been completed before construction began in 1993 (with support from the Governments of Russia and the Ukraine), but only for the 70km to the Cambodia border. Ratanakiri Province was then unsafe for investigating teams. It was also alleged that, more recently, the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB’s) environmental impact consultant for Se San 3 had recommended against its construction, except in a modified form as a supplement to Yali to help reduce the impact of large unseasonal releases after heavy rain (as this year). And again in March, a detailed village-level investigation of the early 2000 flooding and previous variations in the flow of the Se San had begun, covering 53 villages in the three districts of Ratanakiri Province most affected. This was funded by Oxfam America and a Swedish NGO. The NGOs’ survey, released at the end of May, confirmed the deaths in March and many others as far back as 1996 (total 32) which were attributed to sudden flooding caused by the dam. Massive surges of water had occurred, on occasion exceeding 2 metres in depth. As well, large numbers of livestock were said to have drowned in the past four years; and many other people and livestock had sickened or died from drinking river water believed to be contaminated by blue-green algae formed on the dam.

Authorities at the ADB may well have felt some sense of relief by May and June, that the Yali Falls disaster and the subsequent controversy about Se San 3 had occurred before its construction was due to begin, later this year. On the other hand, there are now difficult decisions to be made by both the ADB and the Vietnam Government. Yali Falls Hydropower Project (eventual capacity 732 MW) is the second largest in Vietnam. According to the National Power Development Plan 1995-2010 Se San 3 (220 MW installed capacity) was to be completed by 2005, followed by Se San 4 (366 MW) further downstream and closer to the Cambodian border, and three smaller projects on the Se San system above Yali Falls. Of the 17 ‘priority hydropower projects’ scheduled for construction in Vietnam 1995-2010, Se San 3 was assessed as having the lowest life-time generating costs (2.3 US cents/kwh, calculated over 50 years. The final decision about the future of Se San 3 Hydropower Project may require protracted negotiation.

WATCHPOINT: Further damming of the Se San with Chinese or Japanese funding?


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