Infrastructure problems: River navigation schemes

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A barge traveling on the Danube River, which has been heavily modified for navigation.
© Paul GLENDELL / WWF-Canon

River transportation: Clean alternative or destruction for waterways?

Transport over water is a relatively clean method of moving goods from one point to another. But the development of rivers for navigation — by dredging, channelling, and straightening — often leads to destruction of river courses and negative impacts on people.
Of 230 major rivers in the world, around 60% are considered to be seriously or moderately 'cut-up'. This has often been done with the aim of improving river transport.

The cost of shipping and the value of rivers

Shipping goods by rivers is assumed to be an environmentally friendly mode of transport. It emits less CO2 than road transport.

But truly sustainable transportation will not be achieved if the valuable ecosystems services our rivers provide are ignored. Some of the services that are lost when we try to fit a river to the ships (instead of the ships to the river) include:
  • Storage and retention of water for domestic, agricultural, and industrial use
  • Flood control
  • Provision of food from fisheries and livelihoods for small-scale fishing
  • Groundwater recharge
  • Nutrient reduction.

Irreversible impacts

Inland shipping infrastructure projects alter natural river function and habitat through physical modification such as water pumping, channelizing, dredging, and gravel and sand extraction. This makes deep, straight, and uniformly banked waterways that partly cut the river off from its floodplain.

Vessel operations also create waves that disturb other water users. Young fish are directly affected by waves since their swimming capacity is low. High traffic intensity leads to lowered animal diversity along the river’s shores.

Inadvertent species introductions, spills, and ship collisions pollute and damage aquatic habitats. Accidental pollution involves oil and in some cases hazardous substances.

Opportunities for innovations and sustainable alternatives

Before making irreversible changes on river systems to improve navigation, other approaches should be explored, including:
  • Ship technology: Adapt vessels to the conditions of particular rivers. For instance, low draught ship design allows for operation on inland waterways without the draught restrictions of conventional vessels.
  • River information systems (RIS): Information services for river navigation increase the safety, efficiency, and competitiveness of river transport.
  • Inter-modal techniques: Smooth and efficient connections from ships to other modes of transportation increase the quality and competitiveness of inland waterway transport.
 / ©: WWF-Canon / Edward PARKER
Aerial view of a canalised section of the São João River. Rio de Janeiro State, Brazil
© WWF-Canon / Edward PARKER

Altering the course of river naviation schemes

Places where WWF works to ensure sustainable river navigation:


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