For thousands of years the Mekong River has been an important conduit for people and goods between the many towns situated along its banks. Traditional forms of trade in small boats linking communities continue today, however the river is also becoming an important link in international trade routes, connecting the six Mekong countries to each other, and also to the rest of the world. The Mekong is still a wild river and navigation conditions vary greatly along its length. Broadly, navigation of the river is divided between upper and lower Mekong, with the 'upper' part of the river defined as the stretch north of the Khone Falls in southern Laos; and the 'lower' part as the stretch below these falls.
Mekong River Cruise
Narrower and more turbulent sections of water in the upstream parts of the Mekong River, coupled with large annual water level variations continue to present a challenge to navigation. The seasonal variations in water level directly affect trade in this section of the river. Volumes of trade being shipped decrease by more than 50 per cent, primarily due to the reduced draughts available during the low water season (June–January). Despite these difficulties, the Mekong River is already an important link in the transit chain between Kunming and Bangkok with about 300,000 tonnes of goods shipped via this route each year. The volume of this trade is expected to increase by 8–11 per cent per year. Port infrastructure is being expanded to accommodate the expected growth in traffic, with new facilities planned for Chiang Saen port.
In Laos, 50 and 100 DWT vessels are primarily operated for regional trade, the main types of cargo carried are timber, agricultural products and construction materials. Thailand imports a wide variety of products from China, including vegetables, fruit, agricultural products and fertilisers. The main exports from Thailand are dried longan, fish oil, rubber products and consumables. Nearly all the ships carrying cargo to and from Chiang Saen Port are 300 DWT Chinese flag vessels.
Waterborne trade in the lower Mekong countries of Vietnam and Cambodia has grown significantly, with trends in container traffic at Phnom Penh port and general cargo through Can Tho port both showing steady increases until 2009 when a decrease in cargo volumes can be attributed to the global financial crisis and a subsequent decline in demand for the export of garments to the US. In 2009, Mekong trade received a significant boost with the opening of a new deep-water port at Cai Mep in Vietnam. This new port has generated a renewed focus on the Mekong River as a trade route. The Cai Mep container terminals can accom- modate vessels with a draught of 15.2 m, equivalent to the largest container ships in the world. These mother vessels sail directly to Europe or the United States, which means that goods can be shipped internationally to and from Phnom Penh with only a single trans-shipment at Cai Mep.
As an international river, a number of agreements exist between the countries that share the Mekong to enable trade and passage between them. The most important of these, which address the full length of the river, are:
- Agreement between China and Lao PDR on Freight and Passenger Trans- port along the Lancang–Mekong River, adopted in November 1994.
- Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin, Article 9, Freedom of Navigation, 5 April 1995, Chiang Rai.
- Hanoi Agreement between Cambodia and Viet Nam on Waterway Transportation, 13 December 1998.
- Agreement between and among the Governments of the Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam for Facilitation of Cross border Transport of Goods and People, (amended at Yangon, Burma (Myanmar)), signed in Vientiane, 26 November 1999.
- Agreement on Commercial Navigation on Lancang–Mekong River among the governments of China, Laos, Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand, adopted at Tachileik, 20 April 2000.
- Phnom Penh Agreement between Cambodia and Vietnam on the Transit of Goods, 7 September 2000.
- New Agreement on Waterway Transportation between Vietnam and Cambodia, signed in Phnom Penh, 17 December 2009.