Waterways of Pakistan, including rivers, canals and lakes, had been used since times immemorial for transportation of people and goods. But then, in the mid-20th Century water transport died away because of expanding cheap road and rail networks. That is no longer the case, as road and rail transport have become extremely expensive because of sky-rocketing cost of fuel while water transport today provides a relatively cheaper, cleaner and safer transport alternative world-wide.
In Pakistan trucks move only 25 km on one litre of fuel, while rail covers no more than 75km; on the other hand on one litre of fuel water transport covers 180km.
However, so far one has seen no willingness on the part of the resource constrained successive governments in Pakistan to even consider adding the economically cheaper mode of transport—water transport— to the two already existing but costly modes. Pakistan, it appears, is perhaps the only country in the world which has extensive waterways network but does not use it for transport of goods and personnel.
The present government is finalizing the 12th 5-Year Plan (2018-23). One hopes that adequate steps are undertaken for commercialization of inland water transport; funds need to be earmarked for the purpose for each of its five years. Besides promoting transport efforts should be made to develop related infrastructure industries and facilities, creating jobs, complementing the national highways infrastructure and increasing the benefits of Belt and Road Initiative and CPEC. Water transport also needs to be included in the National Transport Policy, the National Trade Policy; GHQ’s Green Book and sought Private sector’s support as well which has already expressed its interest in the sector by constituting a Committee on Water Management, Floods, Transport and Aquatic Tourism. This Committee has been set up by the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industries (FPCCI) under the chairmanship of Mr. Naeem Sarfraz, a former senior officer of Pakistan Navy. The waterways can be used to transport food grains (principally wheat and rice), cotton, cottonseed, oilcakes, sugar, fertilizer, cement, limestone, construction materials, chemicals, petroleum and derivatives, iron ore, steel, coal cake and all other non-time sensitive cargos. The sector is expected to generate employment, and bring prosperity in the areas along the 7,000 kms of prime, unused river front land through spin-off industrialisation. Over the decades no government division, ministry or department has taken the ownership of inland water transport, despite its major benefits and wide demand. That is the principal reason for its neglect.
What has happened so far is, in 2015 the Punjab government set up the Inland Water Transport Development Company (IWTDC) with its Head Office at Rawalpindi and a base at Daudkhel. In the past three years, the Company has achieved several milestones of success. The Company procured 15 boats including Zodiacs, Work Boats, Country Boats and Survey Boats locally and a small tug form abroad; built, at Daudkhel, a 110 ft ship of 300 tons cargo carrying capacity; extended a spur into the river for safe berthing of vessels; and, most significantly, identified, surveyed and marked a 175-km long computer based navigation channel from Daudkhel to Attock—a remarkable achievement. Trials of ships haven been carried out in the marked channel, crews trained extensively in river operations using computer based navigation, transit points established along the river at various locations; and loads up to 150 tons carried by barge up-and down-stream. Called the Pilot Project it has also procured a tourist boat and developed local river tourism at Kalabagh which has proved a roaring success for a people starved of such recreation.
Transportation is multimodal, each part offering its own merits and demerits in terms of price, speed and reliability. Combination of these merits and demerits along with economic competition allows each mode to target its cargos optimally. Higher value, less weight and time sensitive commodities are transported via road, air and pipeline. Lower value, high weight, and less time sensitive commodities are shipped via rail and water.
In terms of logistics, the primary reason for using inland waterways is the fact that it decreases the total cost, particularly when it becomes a part of end to end cargo movement chain. Multi-modal system is the most appropriate form of linking riverine settlements and nearby industrial units and the same is evident worldwide.
Investment in waterways in rural areas has a great potential to develop peripheral infrastructure and services. This would in turn contribute towards the overall development of the neglected and under-developed rural areas and reduce the isolation of mostly underprivileged communities. Inland Water Transport can also provide them opportunities to access important services like health centres, schools, markets and government organisations. As a whole, it will bring prosperity in the rural areas and improve livelihood of the people.
IWT can play a vital role for economic development and job creation in the areas adjacent to the waterways. Industries such as ship building, terminals and fishing are directly linked with this. Inexpensive mobility has a positive effect on improving livelihoods by affording opportunities to rural producers such as fishermen and farmers to sell their products to the markets. For instance, in Bangladesh, around four million people are utilizing waterways for selling their agricultural products in the nearby cities and markets. It comprises about 60% of all employment in transport sector of the country.
Worldwide, tourism is a major industry, generating millions of jobs and billions of dollars in revenue; waterfront tourism forms a substantial chunk of it. In Pakistan Rivers, lakes and canals provide tremendous opportunities for local and foreign tourists by creating resorts, restaurants, shops, fuel stations, motels, ferries and cruise boats. Domestic travel spending has generated 93.2% of tourism GDP in 2017 (compared to 6.8% from foreign tourists), and is expected to grow by 6.1% leading to exponential rise in tourism revenue. Water tourism will increase revenues significantly. The Pilot Project established in 2015 has convincingly demonstrated that there is huge demand for tourism on waterways. Safety of tourists and craft requires specialized arrangements, including building and maintaining round the clock safe channels and specialised training of operators. Therefore, tourism on waterways must always be the part of inland water transport organisations.
The need of the hour is to establish an Inland Water Transport Authority or Cell to take ownership of the sector. The Authority’s first responsibility will be to create legislation and rules to regulate the waterways; and to carry out a nationwide bankable study, both of which are imperative for facilitating private sector investment in the sector. Subsequently, the Authority will manage the waterways and maintain safe navigation channels.
— The writer is veteran journalist and a former editor based in Islamabad.