The Bassac River Navigation and Logistics System (“BRNLS”) project, which involves the creation of a waterway link between the Bassac River and the sea in the Kampot-Kep region, is poised to yield enormous economic benefits, according to a “two-year-long” feasibility study on the ambitious undertaking.

The research suggests that the project would not have significant negative impacts in the environmental, ecological, legal and technical dimensions, nor would it run counter to Cambodia’s commitments to the April 5, 1995 Mekong Agreement – which centres on the sustainable management of the basin’s water and related natural resources.

This is according to a Ministry of Public Works and Transport statement issued in conjunction with an April 18 meeting of an inter-ministerial commission tasked with keeping tabs on the study.

At the meeting – chaired by public works minister Sun Chanthol, who doubles as the head of the commission – officials reviewed the study and expressed their “full support” for the project, the statement said.

A central aim of the BRNLS project is to provide a viable and efficient alternative for waterway passenger and freight traffic to enter and exit the Kingdom – without passing through Vietnam – that also reduces transportation and logistics costs.

Without disclosing exact figures, the statement affirmed that the economic rate of return (EIRR) calculated for the project exceeds the benchmarks set by “national and international institutions” – thereby substantiating the economic viability of the undertaking.

The “two-year-long thorough and comprehensive” feasibility study was conducted by the Chinese state-owned China Road and Bridge Corp (CRBC) and CCCC Water Transportation Consultants Co Ltd, in collaboration with technical experts at the involved ministries, it recapped.

Chanthol asked the competent working group to compile updated reports on the study as well as the April 18 meeting to present to Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Council of Ministers – or Cabinet – for review, it said.

Several computer-generated conceptual images were shared at the meeting, some of which showed what appeared to be a BRNLS-linked canal somewhere in Kep town, lined by towering skyscrapers on either side. One image suggested that the sea will be accessible in Kep through waterways connected to the project.

Meanwhile, Kep provincial governor Som Piseth, who was at the meeting, commented in a Facebook post that the BRNLS project would be historic, and mark a first for the Kingdom’s inland water transport network, linking the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers to the sea.

The creation of the proposed water transport system would reduce shipping costs, distances travelled and paperwork burdens, he enthused.

The Bassac River is a tributary of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers that starts in the capital and flows south to Kandal province’s Chrey Thom village in Koh Thom district, crossing the border into Vietnam. Cambodia largely relies on the Ka’am Samnor gate on the Mekong for international water transport.

Ky Sereyvath, a senior economist at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, on April 19 contended that the project would move the Kingdom away from its historically heavy reliance on Vietnam’s portion of the Bassac for water transport – known there as the Hau River.

“Once Cambodia arranges a waterway linking the sea to the Bassac River – that’ll boost Cambodia’s economic power, making it a necessity,” he said.

The inland waterway route is expected to be around 180km in length, and the public works minister has said that its completion would require the excavation of just one entirely new canal, around 7km long, although upgrades will be needed for the existing thoroughfares that are to be used.

The ministry has also noted that the project will link to an unspecified “seaport” in the Kampot-Kep region.

This is most likely the International Multi-Purpose Logistics and Port Centre, which broke ground in May on a 600ha plot of seafront land with water depth of 15m, in Prek Tnaot commune, Bokor town, Kampot province.

The complex is slated to cost $1.5 billion – mainly invested in by Kampot Logistics and Port Co Ltd – and accommodate ships weighing up to 100,000 tonnes. The Ministry of Commerce’s business registry lists the names of two officers for the company – incorporated on March 4, 2021 – “Yim Ly” and “Meas Thom”, the former of whom is identified as senior.

Although no starting point for the waterway link on the Bassac River has been officially announced, the ministry previously mentioned southeastern Kandal’s Prek Ambel village as an option. And indeed, there is a distributary there, at GPS coordinates (11.243N, 105.026E), that flows southwest.

Of note, local media earlier this year cited the minister as saying that the new waterway – thanks to its mechanisms to regulate water levels – would significantly reduce flooding in Kampong Speu and Takeo provinces as well as lessen the impacts of droughts.