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Focus on Mekong

October 2009

Roads, Bridges, Ports and People

ODA Loans help build new airportsODA Loans help build new airports

During some of the heaviest bombing the world has ever seen, roads, bridges and ports were obliterated in Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia. Today, in a dramatic reversal of fortune, the construction of new regional highways, bridges and other infrastructure has been key to the economic regeneration and future growth of the whole Mekong area.

The 1,450 kilometer East-West economic corridor linking the port of Mawlamyaing in Myanmar with Danang in Viet Nam via Thailand and Laos is a vivid example of progress at work.

When the 1,600-meter long Second Mekong International Bridge over the Mekong River was opened in late 2006 - JICA conducted a detailed survey design for the bridge and provided a yen-loan for its construction - it signaled not only the virtual completion of the road network itself but also the transformation of the entire region.

Exports between the Thai capital of Bankgkok and the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi used to take two weeks by sea. The new land route has slashed that time to three days.

The bridge directly links the Thai border town of Mukdahan with the Lao city of Savannakhet, which has ambitious plans to transform itself.

Until three years ago there was only a desultory river ferry service between the two river banks. Movement was limited. That has all changed. Shuttle buses now cross regularly. Lao nationals go to Thailand to work. Thai businessmen and tourists move in the opposite direction.

Old timers remember the carpet bombing of the war years, but based on a JICA proposal, Savannakhet is now planning to establish three economic zones for factories, warehouses and cargo terminals and hopes to attract both domestic and foreign investment with attractive financial and trading incentives. Ground breaking has already begun.

The Logitem Laos GLKP company establish a hub here in 2007 to focus on developing an international cargo transportation system and company official Keiichi Sugiyama said recently, "Minerals from Laos and demand for cargo transport from Thai sugar factories have been increasing remarkably."

Savannakhet is a pretty mélange of French colonial buildings and Buddhist temples and there are plans afoot to develop tourism with JICA providing advice on developing tour guide manuals and promotional websites, pamphlets and posters.

Rehabilitating ports around the Mekong areaRehabilitating ports around the Mekong area

New roads and bridges are only one component in an efficient transportation network.

Government officials in some developing countries estimate that bureaucratic and administration bottlenecks at border crossings can add several weeks to transportation times, effectively throttling the rapid movements of goods and people the infrastructure was supposed to facilitate.

The Friendship Bridge linking the Lao capital of Vientiane with northeastern Thailand is daily thronged with trucks, shuttle buses and long lines of people waiting at customs and immigration.

The customs point at Nong Khai in Thailand was chosen in 2008 as a JICA pilot project to streamline and improve the flow of people and goods and also to put into place a ‘risk management' process to more effectively uncover such things as drug smuggling and illegal ‘copycat' products such as CDs which are both rife in the region.

Officials from Thailand, Cambodia and Viet Nam also undergo regular training. Longtime Japanese customs official and a JICA chief advisor Etsuji Uno who coordinates the JICA program said, "As ties among the Mekong countries become stronger and the number of people and goods increase, we need to carefully monitor all of these movements – allowing all the legal movements to pass swiftly but also being able to detect the illegal elements efficiently."

In addition to helping build a land-based transportation network Japanese finance and expertise have also helped to rebuild a series of terminal points – airports and ports throughout the Mekong through which all the region's exports, imports and passengers move.

One such example is Cambodia's largest port, Sihanoukville, which handles virtually all of the country's container and cargo traffic. Though Cambodia's recent economic growth rate topped 10%, Sihanoukville itself failed to keep pace with the needed expansion.

Starting in 1996, JICA began a survey to revamp the port and in subsequent years yen-loans were provided to expand the container wharf and equip it with the latest cranes and computer systems.

A special economic zone to promote exports is planned next to Sihanoukville and an improved road system linking the port area with the capital, Phnom Penh.

Local personnel are being constantly trained in new management techniques.

Streamlining customs and immigration procedures help regional economiesStreamlining customs and immigration procedures
help regional economies

"Everything still takes too long," says Kazutoshi Sakata, a JICA port administration and technology expert said. When he helped develop a plan for a new container yard with local officials it took three months to arrive at a decision.

Patience, however, is a necessity in such work, to both win Cambodian confidence and develop their long-term ability to handle the port themselves.

"I let the port staff make the final decision because I want them to have a sense of responsibility and ownership," the Japanese said. "There will be trial and error, but they will learn," he added, breaking into a wry smile.

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