For hundreds of years, the Mekong River has been a vital passageway for people and goods. Today, the Mekong is still an essential means of transportation for many of the people living in the region and plays an increasingly important role in international trade and tourism. For example in Viet Nam, roughly 73% of cargo tonnage and about 27% of passengers travel by water annually.
Within the Lower Mekong Basin (LMB), the Mekong River and its major tributaries are navigable during the high-water season (about eight months of the year), with the exception of a 14-km section just north of the border between Cambodia and the Lao PDR – the impassable Khone Falls.
North of the Khone Falls, narrow and turbulent sections of the river as well as large annual water level variations present a challenge to the development of trade and transportation. Despite these difficulties, the river provides an important link between China and lower Mekong countries. Port infrastructure is being expanded to accommodate expected growth, with new facilities planned for the Chiang Saen port, located in the “Golden Triangle” where the borders of Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam converge.
In the Lower Mekong Basin, river-based trade in Viet Nam and Cambodia has grown significantly in recent years. In 2009, Mekong trade received a significant boost with the opening of a new deep-water port at Cai Mep in Viet Nam. The Cai Mep container terminals can accommodate some of the largest container ships in the world. These vessels sail directly to Europe and the United States.
A number of efforts are underway to improve navigation safety. Some of the initiatives include the installation of safety aids along the least navigable areas of the river and updated modelling. The MRC has also facilitated a number of cross-border agreements, making regional trade more effective.
In 2009, Cambodia and Viet Nam signed a bilateral Treaty on Waterway Transportation to reduce cross-border navigation restrictions and improve efficiency and safety standards on the Mekong. Improved regulations, monitoring, coordination, and control of navigation activities contribute towards a healthier riverine environment by reducing shipping accidents that result in oil spills and other dangerous substances. For example, specialised port facilities can eliminate the risks involved in the beach landings of petroleum tanker barges.
The MRC is the only regional organisation with a clear mandate to manage, assist in developing, and monitor cross-border waterborne transport. Article 9 of the 1995 MRC Agreement states: “Freedom of navigation shall be accorded throughout the mainstream of the Mekong River without regard to the territorial boundaries, for transportation and communication to promote regional cooperation.”
The MRC plays a key role in supporting the development and improved use of Mekong waterways – a complex task as the river is a political border between some of the countries in the regions.