Harmony Seen as Key To Make Full Use of the Mekong

The countries that share the Mekong River share one of the world’s great natural transport systems, but they have to learn how to cooperate smoothly in order for everyone to benefit.

That was the message of a seminar Monday, organized by the Mekong River Commission, aimed at helping Cambodia and Vietnam work together to harness the river’s potential.

“Maritime shipping on the Mekong River system in the delta is not as active as it should be,’’ Joern Kristensen, chief executive officer of the MRC, told approximately 40 officials and shipping executives assembled at the Sunway Hotel.

Although the Port of Phnom Penh was upgraded in 1996, the port “is not receiving the number of ships which was predicted before [rehabilitation],’’ he said.

But the MRC’s goal is to do more than improve business in Phnom Penh, he stre­ssed. “Mar­i­­t­­ime ship­p­ing is a tool for regional cooperation.’’

For example, he said, if the Vietnamese cities of Can Tho and Ho Chi Minh City cooperate with Phnom Penh in trying to attract shipping to all three ports—rather than trying to compete with each other—the combined effort “could be regarded as an attractive option for shipping companies.’’

Traffic through Phnom Penh’s port dropped by about 20 percent last year. Port officials complained that shipping companies resented having to obtain licenses first from Vietnam before coming to Cambodia, saying it was a waste of time.

However, Khek Ravy, secretary of state at the Ministry of Co­m­­merce, said earlier this year that some shippers preferred to use the deep-water port at Sih­anoukville, which saw an estimated 24 percent increase in tonnage in 1999.

Hou Taing Eng, the National Mekong Committee’s secretary general, said there is no question that Cambodia needs “sustainable development in waterborne transport.’’ But to develop as a country, Cambodia must show concern for the natural environment and cooperation with its neighbors, he said. “We should develop our country with mutual benefits,’’ he said.

MRC officials noted that similar seminars have been held in Viet­nam, with one in Hanoi in De­cember 1999 and a second in Ho Chi Minh City last week.

Speakers from other countries said issues involving rivers that flow through many countries are always complicated and sometimes take years to resolve. The Mekong is just one of 18 major river systems in the world governed by international treaties, and though agreements in areas such as water management during the dry season have been reached regionally, shipping remains a complicated issue.

Eric Van Hooydonk, a lawyer and professor at the University of Antwerp in Belgium said Euro­pean countries had struggled for centuries to come up with a body of law and custom governing rivers that span borders.

In general, European courts and treaties have concluded that while nations may own and control the riverbanks, water flowing from one nation to another belongs fully to neither and that bordering nations have equal rights.

The situation between Belg­ium and The Neth­erlands, he said, is in some ways analogous to that of Cambodia and Vietnam: the mouth of the Mekong is in Vietnam, which means that upstream ports such as Phnom Penh must reach clear agreement with Vietnam over how the waterways are to be used.

Belgium and The Netherlands have argued about similar questions, sometimes bitterly, for several hundred years. The mouth of the River Scheldt is controlled by the Dutch, which means that goods destined for the upriver Belgian port of Antwerp must pass through Dutch territory.

The two governments quarreled endlessly about fees, and maintenance, and who should be allowed to use the waterway. Over time, however, agreements were reached in most, but not all, disputes, Van Hooydonk said.

Van Hooydonk urged Cam­bodia, Vietnam and the Mekong River Commission to make sure any regional agreements include strong provisions for settling disputes.

(Additional reporting by Jody McPhillips)



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