In a month spent traveling through Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, I found a remarkable disconnect between the concerns of academic critics and NGOs about the Mekong River's future and the public attitude of governments already engaged in dam-building. I also found that awareness of what has happened and could happen to the river in the future is very much limited to those who live beside it.
I don't pretend that my soundings about the future of the river were scientific. I talked when the opportunity was available to 'the man or woman in the street', or the hotel, or in taxis of various kinds. And on this occasion, in contrast to other visits reported in The Interpreter, I did not seek commentary from officials. There appears to have been no change in their positions, particularly the Lao and Cambodia governments. What the Vietnamese government feels about the Mekong's future is something of a puzzle, while the Thai government is clearly not focused on the issue.
There is, of course, one given in relation to the Mekong's future, and that is the fact that China has now built seven dams on the upper reaches of the river and there is a widespread conviction in the riverside communities of Chiang Saen and Chiang Khong in northern Thailand that uncertain and erratic water flows during the dry season, leading to diminished fish catches, are a direct result of China's dams.
At least as significant, though receiving less attention, is the fact that China's dams are restricting the amount of nutrient-rich sediment flowing down the Mekong. I am not aware of any recent study that has quantified the impact of this restriction, which will be of great importance both for riverside agriculture and, perhaps most importantly, for the agricultural production of Vietnam's Mekong delta in the future.
More immediately important are the issues associated with one dam on a major Mekong tributary in Cambodia (the Lower Se San 2 dam, where construction has clearly begun)and the proposed Don Sahong dam in southern Laos, where all indications are that the Lao Government will not budge from its determination to build.
There are good reasons for concern that both these dams will substantially diminish fish stocks in the Mekong, though as Ian Baird, a long-time researcher on Mekong issues, points out in relation to the dam in Cambodia, NGOs have probably placed too much importance on the relocation of affected communities above the likely loss of fish stocks. At the same time, WWF has repeatedly drawn attention to the possibility that the Don Sahong dam could lead to the extinction of the critically endangered Mekong dolphins in the Mekong. While this is a legitimate concern, the much more extensive loss of fish stocks risks being undervalued by the stress on this one issue.
Why is it, then, that a future substantial diminution of fish stocks and the problems associated with limiting the flow of sediment down the river receives so little attention among the general public and on the part of governments?
The answer, so far as the governments of Cambodia and Laos are concerned, seems simply to be that they are convinced the more immediate value of hydropower trumps concerns about the reduction of fish stocks. Sales of electricity seem a tangible gain, with computer modelling indicating the loss of fish stocks can be dismissed, particularly when dam builders claim they have a way to minimise fish losses.
For the population living away from the rivers, other issues seem more important. I well remember a senior Thai official saying to me in 2008 that the average politician in his country had no real interest in Mekong matters unless his constituency bordered the river, and one supposes such a politician would have had more access to information about the river than a member of the general public. In Cambodia, where there now are quite active NGOs concerned about the river, there are few people ready to challenge Hun Sen's rejection of challenges to the Lower Se San 2 dam. In the much more tightly controlled Lao polity there are few who are even aware of what might happen to the Mekong.
What is most surprising is the restrained nature of public statements by Vietnam in relation to the Lao and Cambodian dams. At the Second Mekong River Commission Summit held in Ho Chi Minh City last year Vietnamese officials, including the prime minister, spoke critically of the actions of the Lao government. But there has been remarkably little by way of follow-up. Indeed, in recent talks between the Vietnamese and Lao governments, the issue of the Mekong was treated in a very restrained manner. On the one hand, the Vietnamese prime minister said his country 'supported Laos in developing hydropower on the Mekong River for socio-economic development', but he went on to qualify this by saying that 'if the construction of hydropower dams on the Mekong River's mainstream has great impact on the environment and people's live, then we should not do it.'
There once was a time when the 'lips and teeth' association between Vietnam and Laos might have been expected to lead to a more vigorous approach from Hanoi and a more compliant attitude in Vientiane. The fact that the Hanoi government has concerns about Chinese influence in Laos undoubtedly plays some part in the softly, softly approach being followed.
Well over 60 million people on the Lower Mekong Basin depend on the Mekong River, not least for its bounty of fish, which in Cambodia's case provides 80% of the population's annual protein intake. But this fact, and many others, seems not to be taken into account as dam building goes on in Laos and Cambodia. It is as if the countries of the Mekong are sleepwalking into a dangerously worrying future.