The Cambodian government is pushing ahead with an ambitious plan to build an international
port on the Mekong River although many shippers believe the country would be better
served by expanding the coastal port at Sihanoukville.
The plan, originally conceived in the 1960s, has been revived in the wake of the
signing of the Paris Peace accords and envisions a facility to serve the capital
city Phnom Penh which sits near the intersection of the Mekong and Tonle Bassac Rivers.
"The port would handle small to medium sized vessels and allow for door-to-door
movement of cargo," said Phnom Penh Port Director Mom Sibon. He said the new
docks would share Cambodia's port duties in a 50-50 split with Sihanoukville, which
would cater to larger cargoes and agricultural shipments.
But shipping agents and traders argue that building a port on the Mekong, which winds
through Vietnam before it reaches the sea, would leave Cambodia dependent on the
inconsistent and bureaucracy-bound government of its communist neighbor.
"Vietnam has been totally unreliable on rates and transit permits. They have
changed the procedures four times in the last year," said Kevin Whitcraft of
trading company RM Asia.
The shallow draft of the Mekong also poses problems for shippers. Vietnamese pilots
have run freighters on to the river's shifting sandbars six times since December.
Sibon said he was confident the Vietnamese would simplify their procedures to enable
them to share the benefits of increased river trade up the Mekong.
At present, the plan is still only in its nascent stages and the government is looking
for $60,000 to fund a feasibility and environmental impact study which is to be undertaken
by the Mekong Committee.
In the meantime, the dilapidated Phnom Penh port on the Tonle Bassac river will be
upgraded over the next two years to allow it to handle up to a million tons of cargo
a year by the turn of the century.
The old wharves are structurally weak and cannot handle individual cargoes of more
than 20 tons. The piers are also small and allow little room for maneuvering. Shippers
also complain that the Russian equipment is old and regularly breaks down.
A $17.1 million rehabilitation project, which is being financed by the Japanese development
agency JICA, will add two more births to the current four and extend the wharves
by 100 meters to make room for a container terminal. Planned dredging will increase
the port's draft from the current four-meters and allow it to handle vessels of 4,000
DWT, up from the existing capacity of 1,200 DWT.
Phnom Penh is further handicapped by a shortage of public warehouse space. A number
of American, Greek and Japanese firms have expressed interest in building refrigeration,
transportation and fishing facilities and a container yard although most investors
have adopted a wait and see approach while the political situation remains uncertain.
"Business is not going to go anywhere as long as UNTAC is here and they have
a big question mark over the country," said an executive of one trading company
who asked not to be named.
As part of the redevelopment plan, the loading site known as Port No. 3, which is
used for domestic cargo traffic will be closed down. The port, which is little more
than a stretch of bank near Wat Phnom, has long been a home of sorts to the families
of the stevedores and other port workers. Each rainy season, the port's inhabitants
are forced to evacuate the area ahead of the rising tide but this year they have
been notified by the port authorities that they will not be allowed to return when
the tide retreats.
"This port has been very problematic. It has been an area of crime and gambling,
and extortion rackets. The principle problem is that a lot of people live here and
it has been impossible to control," said Lt. Raul Peluffo of the UNTAC port
A Mekong Committee report, released in June, on the Phnom Penh Port said its location
in a primarily residential area would restrict future expansion and plans for a new
facility would have to made soon as it will reach its capacity early in the next
Sihanoukville port has gained in popularity among traders, especially following the
morass of red tape created by the Vietnamese last year.
The port, which was built in the early 60s, can accommodate ships up to 10,000 tons
and has a draft of 8-meters although this has been declining steadily.
"10,000 tons is sufficient for now but when they start doing large rice exports
it would be more efficient to ship in bigger lots," said Whitcraft.
The port lacks proper equipment for handling traditional break bulk cargo and containers,
which are rapidly emerging as the way of the future for shipping. Forklifts and slings
are currently being used to move containers although the Asian Development Bank has
provided a $3 million budget to purchase proper stackers.
Shippers say the bigger problem lies with the port workers.
"Administration works well but there are problems on the operations side. Here
you pay triple the rates of Thailand but they are only one fifth as efficient plus
they steal your cargo," Whitcraft said.
Cambodian stevedore teams are notoriously unproductive. The teams, which are responsible
for discharging and loading cargo, average only about 200 tons per day whereas their
Thai and Vietnamese counterparts move between 800 and 1,000 tons of cargo for the
same period. Shippers say they would be willing to pay premium rates if the stevedores
would work 24 hours a day. The teams currently only work daylight hours. If it rains,
a time when dry cargoes such as rice sugar and cement can't be moved, they go home
rather than waiting the storm out.
Since late last year, authorities at Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville ports have boosted
stevedore wages and introduced productivity-tied bonuses in a bid to increase their
work rate. Some shippers are pushing for privatizing the teams.
The low productivity rate of the stevedores is being cited as the main cause of the
current congestion at port. Large shipments of timber presently leaving the country
coupled with the withdrawal of the U.N. peace mission has resulted in ships having
to wait more than a week to enter the port
Whatever its shortcomings most traders believe the future of Cambodia shipping industry
lies in Sihanoukville, which lies about 230 km away from Phnom Penh and is also connected
by a rail link.
"People talk about resurrecting the infrastructure the roads and electricity
but the rail should be the number one priority. The current rail system is a piece
of junk," said one trader.
Rail is far cheaper than trucking, the costs of which have tripled since the arrival
of UNTAC, but the bureaucracy and slow service--the existing train service makes
23 stops between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville-have made the utility a nightmare.
Rail lines also link Phnom Penh with Battambang, the main growing area for rice,
formerly Cambodia's number one export.