Transporting people and goods over inland waterways, such as rivers and canals, can decrease road traffic, accidents and pollution while increasing cross-border trade.
Inland waterway transport is generally acknowledged as a clean, safe, and most energy efficient mode of transport when compared to land-based systems which are often confronted with congestion and capacity problems.
Despite the presence of rivers and canals in Asia and the Pacific, until now this potential has remained largely underdeveloped because of lack of dedicated transport policies and investments.
For countries that are developing fast, transport needs are growing even faster. This problem, according to Menno Menist, managing director of Netherlands-based research and consulting firm Panteia, can be solved through the efficient use of infrastructure.
"Road and rail cannot deal with that in many countries. If you have the opportunity to use inland waterway transport, it would be a very smart move to do so," Menist said. "It's often very environmentally friendly, cost-wise it could definitely be cheaper, and you need every alternative you have to transport goods and passengers."
In India, for example, waterways did not receive the infrastructure funding needed as the government focused on roadways and railways after it gained independence from the British in 1947, explained Jayashree Mukherjee, Vice Chairperson, Inland Waterways Authority of India. "But now, road congestion and traffic constraints on the railways and growing environmental awareness have made inland waterways a very good option."
In the People's Republic of China (PRC), inland water transport has received a growing level of recognition of its importance.
"The PRC has been going through very fast and very strong development. They really are making use of the possibilities that inland water transport has been bringing to them. They see it as an essential part of their entire transport system and it has helped the Port of Shanghai, if you look at the Yangtze River, to develop rapidly," explained Mr. Menist.
Promoting a modal shift away from road transport to inland water transport can also generate safety benefits, as it may replace heavy goods vehicles which are responsible for a disproportionate amount of traffic accidents. For example in India, trucks represent only 5% of the total vehicle fleet, but are responsible for 26% of all road accidents.
"The challenges in inland water transport faced in Europe, North America, and Asia are all the same. Even the solutions, to a larger extent, could be similar in one river basin compared to the other."
-- Hans van der Werf, Secretary General, Central Commission for the Navigation of the Rhine
Furthermore, inland waterway transport also has the potential to support regional cooperation and integration, by creating a common transport route across several countries that share the same river. This is demonstrated by how Europe has utilized rivers such as the Danube and Rhine to foster trade across the continent.
Some of the major issues facing Asian countries are similar to the problems that faced Europe and North America during the growth phases of their respective inland water transport sectors years ago.
"If you look at our experience with the waterway of Canada, I would say that moving from a private-type of investment and regulation environment to a more governmental-oriented governance framework was a major challenge," explained Jean Aubry-Morin, Vice-President, External Relations, The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation, which manages the major waterway serving Canada and the United States.
"The biggest difficulty, however, was to create a regulating environment that would not be too complex. The need was to standardize, harmonize and simplify the regulations to permit long-term investment, so that users would be able to manage risk and develop a sound economic development."
According to Hans van der Werf, Secretary General, Central Commission for the Navigation of the Rhine, the challenges in inland water transport faced in Europe, North America, and Asia are all the same. Even the solutions, to a larger extent, could be similar in one river basin compared to the other.
Looking at water-based transport more widely to include ports and short sea shipping, ADB has successfully implemented nearly $2.5 billion worth of investments over its history. In particular, ADB has provided either technical assistance or a loan, or both, to inland waterway transport interventions in Indonesia, Viet Nam, India and the PRC. An example of ADB's renewed involvement in this field is the Xiangjiang Inland Waterway Transport Project in the PRC, which, after completion in 2018 will provide annual savings in emissions equivalent to about 290,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e).
Canada's Aubry-Morin said that ADB's role could be that of a catalyst, investing on critical key projects in the region that can be used as examples of success. This could change the culture of regulators, making them realize that waterway transportation is a solution that helps relieve congestion on roads and rail networks.
There are exciting opportunities to develop or redevelop Asia's inland water transport. Different types of investment are needed, such as for navigation, vessels, information and communications technologies, and training. Policies and institutions have to change, and make room for inland waterway transport. The markets and transport users have to be convinced, and this requires awareness raising. The example of the PRC shows that with sound plans it is possible to develop beneficial inland waterway transport systems in the region.