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Disruptions Highlight Importance of Water Transportation (editorial)

November 3, 2023   The Waterways Journal

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While the more economical cost and other advantages of waterborne transportation have always been recognized, appreciated and taken advantage of by shippers, their traditional caveats have had to do with weather and reliability.


Water transportation has certainly been seeing climate- and weather-related disruptions all over the world. Low water has restricted traffic in virtually all the world’s major commercial traffic arteries over the past two years. The Amazon basin is seeing its severest drought in a century, with pictures showing stranded barges and houseboats. The Rhine River in Europe, like the Mississippi, has seen two consecutive summers of low water. So has the Danube, another major artery that is becoming even more important as Ukraine seeks alternatives to its Black Sea ports that have become less safe due to the Ukraine war. China’s Yellow and Yangtze rivers saw severe drought last year, leading to hydropower outages and billions of dollars of losses. The Panama Canal is seeing severe drought as well; just a few days ago, the Panama Canal Authority announced even further transit reductions and restrictions that will extend well into next year. The global reinsurer ING, which insures other insurers and thus has to look at risks to broad sectors, recently came out with a report about climate-related challenges to water transport.


The disruptions aren’t all about weather, though. Some are man-made. At this writing, the 360 striking Canadian dock workers have reached agreement with the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation. It was the first time a strike had shut down the key shipping artery since 1968. The workers’ union, Unifor, must vote on the agreement in the coming weeks. Earlier this year, West Coast dockworkers reached an agreement with port operators after a year of “intense” negotiations.

However, in the new logistics realities, it’s clear that it’s not only water transport that can face reliability issues. Last year, it was railway workers who shut down large parts of the rail network. Green initiatives and emissions rules are causing pressures and disruptions to trucking.


At the same time, the importance of water transport has never been clearer. After detailing its challenges, the ING report admits that there is really no viable, cost-effective alternative to water transport.