NWF Study Compares Waterway Systems 

The United States is blessed with the most extensive developed inland waterway system in the world, well positioned to drain a huge area of fertile farmland. But that does not mean that the U.S. doesn’t have serious competition from other waterway systems, or that we can ever be complacent about the transportation advantage that keeps U.S. farm products and bulk exports competitive in world markets.

A just-released study by the National Waterways Foundation titled “Waterborne Competitiveness: U.S. and Foreign Investments in Inland Waterways” compares the U.S. waterways system with several important overseas competitors from the viewpoints of economic development and national security. 

It singles out for sustained attention the rapidly developing Amazon River and the Hydrovia Parana-Paraguay river systems in South America; the Yangtze River system in China—the world’s busiest waterway and a linchpin in the Chinese government’s development strategy—along with the Mekong River; and Europe’s Rhine and Danube river systems. 

All three overseas waterways systems have lessons to teach, the report concludes. 

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The HPP and Amazon systems in South America are the focus of development by both the Chinese and private American companies. The Amazon River in particular, since it is naturally deep and wide enough to handle ocean-going vessels up part of its length, is seeing rapid development. Both river systems have tremendous potential that is hampered by the failure of governments sharing jurisdiction (especially on the HPP system) to cooperate on joint regulation and governance. The United States is fortunate that the Mississippi River system lies fully within its borders and that federal jurisdiction over its waterways is firmly established. But if and when South American countries learn to cooperate more on river issues, they could make a lot of improvements quickly that would erode U.S. competitiveness, according to the study. 

The Rhine-Danube system has invested heavily in container-on-barge systems, thanks to the sustained commitments of Europe’s green parties. “Europe’s ability to move significant high-value cargo on the Rhine River is the result of a targeted policy strategy where that was the end goal,” the study states. “The region coordinated investments to improve operational reliability and connections to other modes, and the traffic followed.”

America’s container policy doesn’t have to mirror the EU’s exactly, the report suggests, but the U.S. does need “an intentional, coordinated and fully executed strategy” on container cargo that includes waterways and has a defined end-goal. Europe’s waterways systems are a model rather than a threat, the report concludes.

One of the report’s messages is that because China, the European Union and Columbia are also investing significant resources to upgrade their inland river networks, U.S. improvements—welcome as they are—are barely keeping pace with them. In directing the port and waterway investments of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the report suggests, planners would do well to keep an eye on overseas developments and to ensure that infrastructure investment doesn’t only catch up with past underinvestment but ensures competitiveness in a future where America’s peers and trade competitors are fully aware of the advantages of rivers and waterways.