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Mekong dams: Vietnam speaks out

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30 June 2010 16:05

A senior Vietnamese official has voiced his Government's concerns about the effect on his country of proposed Mekong River dams in Cambodia and Laos.

Speaking on 29 June at a workshop the environmental and social impacts of proposed dams on the mainstream of the Mekong River below China, Le Duc Trung, Director General of the Vietnam National Mekong Committee, is reported to have said that 'Vietnam has...great concerns over the research results on the projects (the proposed dams), especially impacts on agriculture and fisheries likely caused by their dams'.

This is a substantial departure from the approach previously followed by the Vietnamese Government. While there have been indications of serious concerns within Vietnamese official circles about the proposed dams, I am not aware of critical public comment by officials.

Quite to the contrary, when I interviewed Le Duc Trung in Hanoi in June last year, he discounted the effect the proposed dams would have on fish supplies, citing Vietnam's aquaculture industry as meeting much of Vietnam's demand for fish, and indicating the Vietnamese Government's reluctance to tell its Mekong River Commission (MRC) and ASEAN partners in Cambodia and Laos what they should do.

This reluctance by officials to speak out against the dams continued in other interviews which I undertook in Hanoi at that time. And a Foreign Ministry spokesman, speaking on 9 July 2009, did no more that state that 'Mekong is an international river, therefore all activities should take into account the interests of basin countries...'

Nevertheless, from the beginning of this year an important Vietnamese newspaper, 'Thanh Nhien', the organ of Vietnam's Youth Association, which publishes in both Vietnamese and English, began carrying articles on an intermittent basis raising concerns about the prospect of dams in Cambodia and Laos, with headlines such as, 'Dams will kill Mekong River downstream, say experts' (26 May 2009). More details on Vietnamese attitudes as of mid-2009 are reported in my Lowy Paper, 'The Mekong: River Under Threat', published in November last year.

So what changed? I think at least two things are involved. First, the Vietnamese Government has concluded that the threat of dams being built on the Mekong in both Cambodia and Laos is too grave to be ignored any longer. Second, it may well have decided that, with the MRC's Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) on the proposed dams due later this year, it is time to abandon niceties in its relations with its neighbours and join its voice to the increasingly active and vocal NGOs in their campaign against the dams rather than wait for the SEA to be released.

It's also possible that the Vietnamese Government has been stirred to action by the growing concern among opponents of the planned dams on the Mekong that construction of a dam at Xayaburi in Laos could soon begin.

Photo by Flickr user Daysleeper724, used under a Creative Commons license.

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