Visiting Cambodia, Laos and Thailand over the past three weeks leaves me in no doubt that issues associated with the Mekong continue to be a subject of sharp controversy, both as a result of the Lao Government’s decision to build a dam at Don Sahong and the Cambodian Government’s decision to go ahead with the Lower Se San 2 dam on the biggest tributary flowing into the Mekong in that country.

As Laos appears set to proceed with its dam at Don Sahong, it has come under criticism from both Cambodia and Vietnam for its failure to follow proper processes through the Mekong River Commission, a replay of how it behaved in relation to the dam at Xayaburi, now under construction. The former environment minister in the Cambodian Government, Mak Moreth, has been sharply critical of Lao behaviour and this criticism has been echoed from Vietnam.

But so far I have not seen or heard recent public criticism of Laos’ plans in relation to Don Sahong from the Cambodian National Mekong Committee to match remarks about this project made in 2009 by the Committee’s Permanent Vice President, Sin Niny, when he drew attention to the damage a dam at Don Sahong could cause to fish stocks in the Mekong River.

It is difficult to know the extent to which muted Cambodian criticism from serving officials reflects a decision by Hun Sen to prevent them engaging in attacks on Lao policy, as happened when it became clear that the Lao Government was set on going ahead with its dam at Xayaburi. What is clear is the fact that Cambodian ministers are for the most part not particularly interested in issues associated with the Mekong, being either unaware of the science involved in warnings against depletion of fish stocks or discounting its validity.

This tendency to reject scientific findings that overwhelmingly warn against the dangers of dams on the Mekong and its tributaries is also reflected in the attitudes adopted by the Cambodian Government and its officials to the planned Lower Se San 2 dam.

Officials I talked to in Phnom Penh, some of whom have previously criticised the intentions of the Lao Government, were adamant in their rejection of suggestions that the Se San 2 dam posed a danger to fisheries or that it was opposed by local populations. These interlocutors both questioned the science relating to fish losses and argued that local discontent was the result of ‘outside agitators’ stirring up trouble.

In any event, as one of my Cambodian informants* put it to me, Vietnam has already built dams on the upper reaches of the river so why should we not build our dam and benefit from the electricity it will provide? That this attitude does not sit well with either those who will be directly affected by the dam or by scientific experts is revealed in this recent Al Jazeera report, which also picks up on the major study published earlier this year warning about the dangers of the dam to fish stocks.

The lack of strong civil society groups in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam leaves almost no possibility for government decisions, once made, to be revoked. Indeed, in Cambodia it has been made clear that protests against the Se San 2 dam could lead to imprisonment.

And while there are active civil society groups in Thailand which frequently campaign against dams on the Mekong, there is little evidence that their concerns have much influence on government thinking in Bangkok, as evidenced by the fact that Thailand is set to purchase electricity from the dams the Lao Government is or will be building.

Photo by Flickr user International Rivers.

* This previously read 'Lao informants'. The error occurred in the editing process.