THIS April, the king of Thailand will make a historic crossing over the first bridge to be built across the lower Mekong River and enter communist-run Laos for the first time.
Not only will the royal visit send a signal of a new era between two neighbors who fought a brief war only a few years ago, but the opening of the nearly half-mile-long bridge will itself mark the start of adventurous initiatives that will crisscross the Mekong region with roads, rails, hydroelectric dams, power lines, and other bridges.
The coming of peace to the region at the end of the cold war has ushered in a rush of foreign aid to link the six nations along the Mekong, led by Japan.
``This bridge has been the catalyst for Laos and Thailand to come closer,'' says the Australian ambassador to Laos, Michael Mann, whose country proposed the bridge in 1989 and paid for it. ``All the transport projects in the region can help bring stability.''
With the end of war in Cambodia in 1990, commerce on and around the Mekong has boomed, turning a former battlefield into a trading place. Thailand now wants a road linking it to China, while Vietnam seeks roads running from Laos and northeast Thailand to its key ports of Vinh and Danang. And the road between Bangkok, Phnom Penh, and Ho Chi Minh City needs an upgrade.
Such projects, while needed to boost the region's economy, require careful political calculations among nations that still have a lingering distrust of each other. ``No project is decided solely on economic feasibility,'' says Bengt Juhlin, of the Mekong Committee. ``Politicians make the final choices.''
Laos, a poor and sparsely populated nation, is the geographic key to the region's development. So far, it has taken a go-slow approach to the approval of a second bridge, but is now going full-steam to develop the vast hydroelectric potential on its Mekong tributaries, which could possibly quadruple its economic wealth. Officials refer to Laos as ``Asia's potential battery.''
All along the lower Mekong, the hydroelectric potential is estimated to be 37,000 megawatts (equal to about 37 nuclear power reactors), including 20,000 megawatts on the mainstream. That amount could provide enough energy to meet the needs of the region for decades.
Presently, only 300 megawatts of hydropower is tapped in Laos, although that country signed an agreement with Thailand last year to develop 1,500 more megawatts.
Large-scale water transport on the Mekong remains limited due to silt in the delta and waterfalls. Still, says Hoang Trong Quang, a Hanoi water resources official, Vietnam hopes to enable 5,000-ton, ocean-going vessels to reach Phnom Penh instead of the present 3,000-ton vessels.