Until now, there has been very little indication of the Vietnamese Government's view of plans to build dams on the mainstream of the Mekong River in Laos and Cambodia. As reported in my November 2009 Lowy Paper, 'The Mekong: River Under Threat', officials I interviewed in Hanoi were reluctant to criticise their ASEAN partners regarding possible dam construction.

This reluctance continued through 2010, but while there was sparse official commentary, there was increasing journalistic comment, particularly from 'Thanh Nhien', the journal of the Ho Chi Minh City Communist Youth League. It focused its attention on developments in the Mekong delta which, as Vietnam's great food bowl, has much to lose if the Mekong's hydrology deteriorates.

More recently, Thanh Nhien's critical comments about future dam construction have been echoed by 'Tuoi Tre', the organ of the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Organisation and now the largest circulating newspaper in Vietnam. Tuoi Tre's 23 February edition, published in English, covered a meeting of Vietnam's National Mekong River Committee, held in the Ha Long Bay region and attended by officials and experts.

The report makes clear that senior officials are now ready to make sharp criticisms of the Lao Government's plans to construct a dam at Xayaburi, on the Mekong lying between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, from which Laos plans to sell hydroelectric power to Thailand.

The commentary and criticism from Nguyen Thai Lai, Standing Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, is stark: 'If built, Laos' Xayaburi dam will greatly affect Vietnam's agricultural production an aquaculture'. And: 'the international community and most scientists share the opinion that it is inadvisable to build dams on the mainstream of the river'. Participants at the meeting called on the Lao Government to delay the Xayaburi project, which is currently subject to consultations organised by the Mekong River Commission.

While the dramatic developments associated with the Thai-Cambodian Preah Vihear temple dispute have made headlines as an example of a problem for ASEAN unity, it is likely the Mekong dams will prove to be a longer-running point of contention between those ASEAN members through which the river flows.

Photo by Flickr user danielguip.