Inland Waterways – Tapping the potential..

The laying of foundation stone for development of another inland waterway earlier this month brought little focus on the inland waterways transportation system. With nearly 14,500 km of waterways, roughly 5 times the length from North to South, these waterways can change the landscape of goods transportation within the country. In fact, the ease of transportation and huge benefits arising out of it leaves one wondering why they have not been developed so far??Inland waterway is very simple in concept and is nothing but transportation of goods through rivers, subject to certain technical requirements. It is not a new concept and its feasibility was established more than 150 years ago, yet its potential is grossly underutilized in the country. As per Wikipedia, the total cargo moved by the inland waterway is just 0.1% of the total inland traffic in India compared to 21% in US.

The most important benefit of waterways is its cost effectiveness and ease of use. Low cost of transportation is very important for high volume, low value products such as fly ash, coal, cement etc. It is also easier for movement of bulky and over dimensional cargo (ODC) such as Cars, project items such as machinery etc. (Successful movement of cars from its plant in North India to Kolkata about two years back gave much fillip to waterways development). Other than the operating cost, the investment required for development of waterway is also significantly lower than road or rail network. More importantly, it doesn’t require land acquisition and associated displacement, the biggest cause of delays and cost escalation of projects in the country. That is not all. The most outstanding benefit is significant reduction in vehicular pollution, an issue being debated intensely but little concrete measures to mitigate it in place, yet. On the flip side, the travel time through waterways is higher than through roads or railways.

While country does have a few operating waterways, the passage of National Waterways Act in April’16 brought forward an action plan to harness its potential. The act notified a total of 111 waterways as National Waterway (five of them already operating), totaling nearly 20,000 km of length. The Act gave the central government power to develop and commercialize them which rested with the state government until then. Among the longest of these is the waterway on River Ganga (NW-1) from Allahabad to Kolkata totaling 1,620 km, on River Godavari (NW-4) covering the states of AP, Telangana and TN and on River Yamuna (NW-110) covering UP, Delhi and Haryana. These two waterways have a length of over 1,000 km. Of special mention is NW-6 in the North-East region which is only 121 km long but covers a hilly terrain, otherwise difficult to navigate through roads.

The most important parameter for navigation through water channels is least available depth (LAD) which should be a minimum of 3 meters for navigation of vessels with carrying capacity of 1,500 ton. (Ports work with draft going beyond 12 meters, loosely equivalent to LAD, which allows them to handle ships with capacity of up to 100,000 tons). It may be noted that NW-1 is constrained by low LAD of 1.2 meters limiting its potential. Government has taken up a project, aided by World Bank, to increase it to 3 meter which would provide boost to movement of export bound goods from North and Eastern region to the port city of Kolkata.

While the government efforts are laudable, the nation is still at least a decade away from realizing the proper potential of waterways. Innovative model for development as tried out in highways development may help reap its huge economic benefits.

(Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

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