Plans to re-open Mekong to shipping

Vientiane Times 19 April 2007

By Ekaphone Phouthonesy

Laos plans to improve navigation channels on the Mekong , hoping to bring transportation on the river back to life.

Deputy Director of the Lao National Mekong Committee Secretariat, Mr Souraxay Phoumavong, said on last week that his office would join the Transport Department of the Ministry of Communication, Transport, Post and Construction to improve navigation channels from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. The work will begin in June.

The Mekong River Commission will provide financial support of 9.6 million kip (US$1 million) for the project, which will run until the end of next year.

He said the initial stage of the project would focus on surveying and installing concrete poles to indicate water channels for boats to follow.

“This year we will focus on finding out where the poles should be installed and how much the construction will cost,” he said. “After gathering all this information, we hope to start making the poles next year.”

Mr Souraxay said that improvements to the 426 km long navigation channel would ensure safer transportation conditions. The improvements would encourage more people to return to using water transport, as they had done a decade ago.

“I believe people will start using water transport as they did once before. When they feel it is safe, they will return to the river,” he said.

A decade ago, trade in Laos relied heavily on boats because roads between provinces were few and far between. After the government built more roads, the number of cargo boats running from Vientiane to Khammuan, Savannakhet and Champassak provinces declined.

At the moment, there are water transport services from Vientiane to Xayaboury province and some boats running from Xayaboury to Luang Prabang.

Mr Souraxay said there were several advantages to water transport: it was now more economical than land transport because cargo boats could carry more goods than trucks. Boats also require less fuel than trucks, and Lao people can build boats, but not trucks.

Due to the lower cost of water transport, the distribution of goods in Laos would be cheaper and their cost would also be lower, he said. Most major cities were located on the banks of the Mekong , making distribution of goods to markets easy, he said.

Mr Souraxay said many countries in the Mekong region had seen huge benefits from water transport, and had developed efficient navigation systems. Chinese boats run up and down the Mekong to ship their goods to Thailand . The Cambodian and Vietnamese governments had improved navigation channels, allowing boats to use the river at night.

Mr Souraxay said that Laos had even more potential, as the Mekong flows through the country from north to south.

He said that after improving navigation channels in the north, his committee planned to extend the project to the southern part of the country.

“We will have more funds from the MRC to improve navigation in the south if the project in the north shows positive outcomes,” he said.