Amid rapidly growing awareness that Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) has hindered rather than helped Vietnam switch to a free market economy, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) is floating a US$500,000 technical assistance project that would rescue ODA’s reputation.

Mooted in April, the project would help Vietnam verify the least-cost development status of the proposed 260MW Se San 3 hydro power scheme. It would then make it a model project to be managed commercially using internationally recommended operational, financial, environmental and social practices, ADB said.

Se San 3 would have been commissioned in 2002, according to Vietnam’s 1996-2012 Power Development Plan. It is now likely to be delayed for several years.

ADB’s unusually blunt language signals much more than just exasperation with a former model client. Vietnam’s present government, far from preceding with its 1994 Doi Moi liberalisation programme has responded to the Asian recession by strengthening government control of the economy.

Such prompt regression to the old ways has scared off foreign investment and hindered trade. Consequently, 1999 GDP growth is now expected to be around 3% instead of 7.4% as predicted only six months ago. The readily available ODA cash is increasingly being seen as dissuading Vietnam’s leadership from taking the unwelcome reform path. As long as there is enough money to keep things running, why change?

But Se San 3 could be a watershed power-wise, as well as in a broader development context. Although Vietnam’s slower growth means that power demand will not expand at the 12-15% annual rates to 2010 as expected, it still urgently needs to add new capacity. Consequently, eight hydro schemes are in various planning stages. Their total combined installed capacity wold exceed 5000MW. Se San 3 obviously comes first. This would be built in the Se San tributary of the Mekong before it crosses into Cambodia, west of the Kontum Plateau. Other schemes include:

•Dai Ninh (300MW) on a tributary of the Dong Nai river northeast of Hoi Chi Minh City.

•Ban Mai (350MW) on the Ca river.

•Pleikrong (120MW) on the Se San upstream of Se San 3.

•Dai Thi (250MW) on the Lo Gam river north of Hanoi.

•Dong Nai (140MW) on the Dong Nai northeast of Ho Chi Minh.

•Son La (3600MW) on the Da (Black) river west of Hanoi.

•Dong Nai 4 (200MW), also on the Dong Nai.

All of the above projects would come on stream by 2012. They would follow on from the twin 475MW Ham Thuan–Da Mi project now nearing completion on the Dong Nai river.

Of particular interest in this scenario is the extraordinary productivity of the Dong Nai river system which drains the Di Linh plateau between Ho Chi Minh and Cam Ranh in the south, and the Son La project near Hanoi.

The Dai Ninh scheme is interesting in that it would divert water from Dong Nai headwaters via an 11km tunnel to a neighbouring watershed, gaining its 300MW capacity from a 610m differential between the two streams.