Inland Waterways Role in Reducing Carbon Footprint

By Nadir Mumtaz (Maritime Analyst)

1 Dec 2022 by The Water Diplomat

Inland Waterways Role in Reducing Carbon Print , Environmental Degradation , Coastal Flooding, Marine Conservation ,Offsetting the Impact of Climate Change with Key Factor Being Logistic Costs

Overview of Inland Waterways

In Europe the inland waterways transport (IWT) infrastructure network is 23,506 km long. Water levels in Western Europe and Germany’s river Rhine , an integral segment of Europe’s IW transport , are at record low levels attributable by some to climate change impact . Annually around 80 % of the 223 million tonnes of cargo transported by ship in Germany is through the Rhine river connecting Germany’s industrial heartland to the Netherlands and the North Sea. As a consequence many inland ports are now at idle status and freight is being diverted to rail or road enhancing the carbon presence in the atmosphere.

The Yangtze River in China’s navigational channel is around 2000 km long and its draught is deep ( 10.5 m) at the Lower Yangtze ( Nanjing estuary ) at port of Shanghai where the segment is 250 km long and can accomadate vessels of 25,000 to 30,000 DWT. The Middle Yangtze is around 630 km long with a shallow draft of 2.9 m, at Yichang Wuhan and can accommodate barges of size of 3000 DWT. The river has 25 inland ports.The size of vessels and barge fleet reduces with decreasing water depth  which usually occurs upstream. The water depth along the first and second segment of the river enables operation and docking of the oceangoing vessels and barge fleets of the specified size. On the inland waterways of the United States millions of tonnes of cargo are transported. Dozens of locks lift rafts of 15 or more barges whose fully loaded weight would be about 1500 tonnes each or a total of about 25,000 tonnes. The conflict in the Black Sea has shown that the inland waterways and rivers of Russia leading to the main seaports on the Black Sea are sustaining the supply chain and export of grains and liquid fossil fuels from Russia.

The Port of London Authority is a Trust which manages 153 km of the pastoral yet tidal River Thames (an estuary) and its “ Vision 2050 “ envisages zero carbon through elimination of sewage and pollution besides conservation of marine ecosystem. Enhancement of  inland waterway freight efficiency can cross subsidize the logistical diversion to transportation through waterways in order to bring about reduction in carbon print. The River Thames has a mean spring tide range of 6.3 m at London Bridge and opens into the North Sea. Its source and first locks are at Teddington upwards from where the tides cease to have effect enabling a predictable flow for cargo. There are 16 bridges over the river in London alone. From 1970 the Port of London Authority concentrated its investment in modern cargo handling technology at Tilbury 45 km downstream of London Bridge where the widhth of the river narrows to 730 m. The Port of Tilbury is located on the Lower Thames and is the largest port handling over 20 million tonnes besides offering 47 berths The dock is accessed through a lock entrance with the ability to accommodate vessels of panamax size up to 10.5 m draft. There are also 7 river berths which can take up to 12.5 m draft vessels.
There is competition since the year 2014 after the opening of the rival £1.5 bn London DP World London Gateway Terminal farther down the Thames, which can host the new breed of 400-metre container ships carrying 9,100 twenty-foot containers. Tilbury Port is
ambitiously considering a post Brexit £ 1 bn expansion to make space for container ships from around the world  with numbers are planned to reach 32 m tonnes by the year 2026. The Port of Tilbury is investing £5.2 billion in flood defences over the next 6 years including replacement of locks as the Port of Tilbury is vital to the national economy. The Port of London Authority and the UK Environment Agency are reverting to freight movement through inland waterway to offset the carbon print of rail and road freight transport of goods. This scheme has a dual purpose of flood protection and navigational convenience besides being a key component of the UK Environment Agency’s Flood Strategy to boost resilience to protect against flooding and coastal change arising as a result of climate change.

IWT Navigation Systems

The IWT infrastructure networks and their components inland ports as nodes, and rivers and channels as links are classified based on the vessel classification. In Europe the Classification of European Inland Waterways is carried out in order to set up the standards for interoperability of large navigable waterways forming part of the Trans European Inland Waterway network within Continental Europe and Russia. This classification implies that the size of each waterway is limited by the dimensions of the structures including the locks and boat lifts on the route.


IWT in India

Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) was established in the year 1986. With renewed focus on waterways as supplementary mode of eco-friendly modal transport IWAI has extended its activities since 2014. The Inland Vessels Bill 2021 wrested rights of the states and vested with the Centre placing under a centralised regulatory regime with the government notifying 111 inland waterways as National Waterways.  Of these 13 National Waterways are operational for shipping and navigation and cargo/passenger vessels  carrying about 55 million tonnes of cargo annually. Ganga watercourse or National Waterway 1 utilized for ferrying cargo from the eastern seaport of Haldia to Varanasi some 1,360 km inland has the potential to emerge as the leading logistics artery for northern India with its development being financed by a World Bank  loan of $ 375 million. A 45 metre-wide channel has been earmarked in the river’s deepest part and the Least Available Depths needed for navigation has been determined keeping in mind the need to reduce dredging to just 1.5 % of the river’s annual silt load of 10-11 million cm utilizing modern, less intrusive technologies time to protect the Ganga’s marine habitat and ecologically diverse fauna. According to the International Monetary Fund India spent $ 72.19 bn for petroleum subsidy in 2015 as the cost of additional fuel consumption was $ 14.7 billion attributable to delays and additional fuel consumption owing to poor condition of roads which was criticized as this amount could have been diverted to social development.

Russian IWT and Black Sea Crisis

The total length of the IWT of the Russian Federation is 102,000 km with river ports operating on the territory of the Russian Federation alongwith  business entities of IWT carrying out cargo works . The river ports are links interacting with railway and road transport and significantly 58 river ports are rail accessed. The IWT in Russia is designed to improve the balance of the country's transport system and reduce specific transport costs in the price of final products by optimizing  transport and technological schemes for cargo delivery through a designed redistribution of cargo flows from land based transport to IWT reducing the overall environmental burden of the transport industry. For maintenance, hydrological and irrigation purposes the IWT is divided into 15 basins. Each basin has common navigable waterways, climate, navigational and hydrographic settings for the vessels sailing and hydrometeorological conditions. Unified Deep Water System of European Russia is the system of inland waterways of Russia, linking the White Sea, the Baltic Sea , the Volga, Moscow, the Caspian Sea and the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea. Guaranteed depth throughout the Unified Deep Water System is not less than 4.5 meters allowing passage of river  and sea going vessels, warships and submarines.

USA  IWT Concerns

The Mississippi River is the third longest river in North America and flows 2,340 miles from beginning to end. It takes 90 days for a single drop of water to travel the Mississippi River’s entire length. From its source Lake Itasca till the Gulf of Mexico the Mississippi River drops 1,475 feet.The deepest point on the Mississippi River is 200 feet in depth and its width is 2.4 km at its widest. Perhaps attributable to climate change the depth is approaching a historic low last seen in 1988 and it is impeding the flow of barges. The US Corps of Engineers spokesperson manages the IWT and the shallow water has forced loading restrictions on the barges that carry soybeans, oil, coal and other commodities limiting capacity and escalating freight tariffs. Frequent groundings on shifting sandbanks are impacting the flow of traffic, making arrival times unpredictable or restricting navigation .

Cyber Security through Digitalization

Short sea inland shipping has a limited horizon for the planning of marine cargo operations supported by exchange of standardised messages between coastal and inland terminals and ports. For maximum freight and logistic efficiency ports need to know sequentially about traffic intensity through digital communication. Operations in IWT are carried out by integrating unified , synchronized and standardised data exchange protocols as well as managing cyber security to ensure a continuous flow of data about intentions, outcomes, and possible disruptions related to marine traffic and service availability in berth-to-berth maritime transport

and ensuring a high degree of predictability .

Environmental Advantages and Zero Carbon Print

In the context of the climate emergency the widespread existing infrastructure of the canal network may contribute to the attainment of ‘net zero’ by the year 2050. Recent European data indicates that IWT’s environmental performance per ton-kilometer for a bulk vessel is only 10 % of that of a truck for carbon dioxide (CO2) emission, 13 % of a truck for nitrogen oxides (NOx), and 50 % of a truck for particulate matter (PM)2. Data from the United States indicate that CO2 emissions per unit turnover of barges are just 8 % of highway transport’s NOx emissions.

  1. On an average, boats on  inland waterways consume 0.23 MJ/ton-km (=350 BTUs/ton-mi) when the cargo is in bulk and 0.22 MJ/ton-km (=336 BTUs/ton-mi) when the cargo consists of containers  freight on seawater.
  1. On average, ships carrying bulk cargo across the ocean consume 0.2 MJ/ton-km (=300 BTUs/ton-mi) and emit 11 g CO2/ton-km (=0.039 lbs CO2/ton-mi) whereas ships carrying cargo in containers consume 0.2 MJ/ton-km (=300 BTUs/ton-mi) and emit 14 g CO2/ton-km (=0.050 lbs CO2/ton-mi) .
  1. Oil tankers are more efficient, consuming only 0.1 MJ/ton-km (=150 BTUs/ton-mi) and emitting approximately 5 to 7 g CO2/ton-km 

Cost Comparison of rail, road and IWT Freight

According to a study conducted by RITES, in India alone one litre of fuel moves 24 tonne-km on road, 95 tonne-km on rail and 215 tonne-km on inland waterways. To move a tonne of cargo over a kilometre it takes about Rs 1.36 on railways, Rs 2.50 on highways and Rs 1.06 on inland waterways. The overall logistics cost in India is around 13 - 14 % of GDP compared to the global average of 8 % and transportation savings will free fiscal space for social schemes as well as reducing flooding calamites besides cleaning up the land and marine environment.

Energy Security and Carbon Print in China

China has also rapidly developed its East coast with refineries and inland coastal LNG and crude oil stations for refuelling , bunkering and additional storage to protect against price volatility shocks. This inland and coastal waterway grid supplements China’s maritime activity. Utilizing of LNG as a fuel positively impacts on carbon emissions and this serves the purpose of China’s plan to battle climate change especially in view of its coal fired power plants spouting noxious gases into the environment.. While there has been a phenomenal development of cargo in China’s coastal ports slow development of LNG bunkering industry has compromised the competitiveness of China’s coastal ports and meeting of its proclaimed goals of circular carbon economy targets. China’s merchant LNG fleet possesses 293 LNG powered ships with 286 dedicated to IWT served by 12 LNG bunkering stations and 8 LNG pontoons in its inland waterway. Along inland waterway nodes and near the coast LNG bunkering pontoons  can address fueling requirements of LNG powered ships complying to safety features as to depths, types, design pressure, material selection, improvisation of lighter and flexible bunkering arms and hose, accompanied by regulated and monitored berthing/unberthing and safety practices. In China as the maximum water level variation reaches 18 m LNG bunkering pontoons , rechargeable from shore, with a fueling capacity of 500 m3 are being designed for operating on the Yangtze and Pearl Rivers . In the next 3 to 4 years it is anticipated that the Yangtze River area , Pearl River area, Beijing–Hangzhou Canal  will have around 2800, 700 , 3500 LNG-fueled vessels respectively. The coastal areas will likewise be frequented by 150 LNG-fueled vessels.


The Inland Waterways Authority of India has in the year 2022 collaborated with the gas carrier MOL which will invest and facilitate transportation of Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG)  through inland waterways . Components of such IWT involve adequate fairway,  handling of LPG cargo on terminals/ multimodal terminals , Lease Available Depth information, dedicated pipelines between jetty to the terminal and necessary infrastructure at the jetty for evacuation of products from the barges. Presently 60 % of the LPG is moved through road to the various locations with a cost of Rs 5 to 6 per metric tonne /km besides the parcel size as compared to road trucks which can carry 17 metric tonne of LPG in case of barges shall be comparatively larger leading to economies of scale. LPG is an environmentally clean cargo with zero leakages and spillage as the products are handled by pipelines in a fully closed loop . LPG cargo needs less berthing time compared to any other bulk cargo there being no requirement of conveyors to be installed on berths/ jetties. Handling LPG by IWT will lower the carbon footprint.