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UNECE issues recommendations to unlock green and cost-saving potential of inland water transport

Scaling up the use of inland waterways can accelerate the decarbonisation of the transport sector, and offer a ‎sustainable complement to the shipping of goods by road and rail. Transport by water also improves safety, reliability ‎and reduces congestion. As a cost-effective and sustainable mode of transport, inland water transport holds significant ‎untapped potential to improve multinational trade across the Pan-European region. ‎


In the Pan-European region, for the 42 countries with available data, inland water transport accounted for only 3.2% ‎of total inland freight transport in 2018, well below road (64.47%) and rail (32.4%) according to UNECE data for ‎‎2018. However, there are significant variations between the countries that do make use of inland water transport: in ‎Austria, Croatia, France, Hungary and Slovakia, the share of freight transport by inland waterway is under 10%, while ‎it surpasses 10% in Bulgaria, Germany, Romania, Serbia and the Netherlands - where it approaches 40%. ‎


A new White Paper issued by UNECE aims to help scale-up the use of inland water transport. This comes at a time of ‎expansion for the region’s network: from 1998 to 2016, the total length of the E waterway network grew from 27,711 ‎km to 29,238 km, with the share of these waterways complying with “AGN” standards increasing from 79 to 83%. ‎


Assessing the current status of the E Waterway Network in accordance with the European Agreement on Main Inland ‎Waterways of International Importance (AGN), administered by UNECE, the Paper outlines ongoing and planned ‎major infrastructure projects, and highlights a significant degree of harmonization in the institutional and regulatory ‎framework for inland navigation since 2011. This is the result of coordinated activities of member States, facilitated ‎by UNECE, and the ongoing work on major infrastructure projects, including the TEN-T Network overseen by the ‎European Commission corridors. Progress is also supported by the rising number of contracting parties to AGN, ‎which now stands at 19, following the accessions of Serbia (2014) and Poland (2017).  ‎


As the most cost-efficient mode of transport, developing a more intensive use of inland water transport has led to a ‎general trend of scaling up of ship size over the last decade. The result is that the total gross tonnage of the fleet ‎navigating on the European inland waterways continues to increase, while the number of vessels has decreased. ‎


The White Paper highlights numerous challenges to scaling up inland water transport. A key need to enhance ‎resilience to climate change, which is already affecting operations on main waterways such the Rhine and the Danube ‎due to extreme water levels (see UNECE study). Climate change also demands a greener industry: currently, almost ‎the entire fleet is equipped with diesel combustion engines and diesel-powered electrical generators, with many ‎vessels built over 30 years ago. Environmental performance can be improved by using alternative propulsion systems, ‎alternative fuels and by the aftertreatment of the emissions from engines. The sector must also step up efforts to ‎ensure the proper handling of its wastes. In addition, the industry faces challenges of an ageing workforce and a ‎growing shortage of available staff, including women and younger professionals. There is also no common standard ‎currently available for the education and training of crews.‎


To help respond to these challenges and to support the sector’s contribution towards the Sustainable Development ‎Goals, putting the political momentum and priorities of the 2018 Wroclaw Ministerial declaration into action, the ‎White Paper identifies eight priority areas and related policy recommendations that will guide UNECE support for the ‎sector over the next decade:‎



  • Increased coordination in the development of a modern, sustainable and resilient E waterway network ‎‎–continue to promote and facilitate accession to AGN and support infrastructure projects and initiatives, ‎facilitating actions to ensure the sector’s resilience to climate change.‎

  • Renewed focus in building up a solid regulatory framework aimed at increasing the efficiency and ‎safety of inland water transport – ensure continued promotion and monitoring of the implementation of ‎international conventions and UNECE resolutions; assess potential new legal instruments to further facilitate ‎the growth and use of inland waterways, pleasure navigation and tourism.‎

  • Identify and assist member States in applying measures to increase the modal share of inland water ‎transport, and improve integration in multimodal transport and the logistics chains – raise awareness of ‎the competitive and complementary advantages of Inland Water Transport; facilitate integration in ‎multimodal transport and logistics chains and continue cooperation with other inland modes, promoting ‎related international agreements.‎

  • Encourage the modernization and greening of the fleet and infrastructure to better tackle ‎environmental challenges – strengthen the exchange best practices and support programmes and pilot ‎projects to accelerate fleet modernization and greening such as through low and zero emission propulsion ‎systems and alternative fuel use; promote the development of a harmonized European legal framework for ‎the management of waste generated by vessels; and continue to harmonize technical prescriptions for inland ‎vessels and river-sea vessels.‎

  • Promote the development and pan-European application of River Information Systems (RIS) and other ‎information technologies in cooperation – ensure regular updating of UNECE resolutions on RIS; ‎encourage other uses of IT to facilitate Inland Water Transport operations and inspections of inland vessels ‎and develop and promote harmonized rules and criteria.‎

  • Promote the development of automation, digitalization and other innovations in the sector – encourage ‎and support the development of a harmonized international legal framework for smart shipping; support ‎accelerated digitalization of transport documents and operations.‎

  • Address labour market challenges at the pan-European level, make the sector more attractive and ‎increase the mobility of workers – contribute to the ongoing work of the EU, CESNI and River ‎Commissions to address labour market challenges; continue harmonizing the approaches for issuing and the ‎recognition of certificates for boatmasters and crew members, training and education principles at pan-‎European level; encourage activities to ensure equal rights and opportunities for women, and make the sector ‎attractive for younger workers; support the development of modern educational and training programmes.‎

  • Enhance safety, security and cyber security, countering internal and external threats to the sector –‎investigate safety issues in inland navigation; advocate for the implementation of a formalized safety ‎culture; conduct a risk assessment on terrorist threats and crime, supporting continuing work on security ‎provisions; assess cybersecurity risks linked to digitalization and ensure cooperation with relevant ‎stakeholders.‎

The UNECE White Paper on Efficient and Sustainable Inland Water Transport is available in English, French and ‎Russian at:


https://www.unece.org/trans/publications/inland-water-transport-publications/2020/white-paper-on-the-progress- ‎accomplishment-and-future-of-sustainable-inland-water-transport/doc.html


Note to editors ‎


The White Paper is the third edition of a UNECE policy paper on the current situation, trends and challenges in inland ‎water transport in the UNECE region. This third edition follows from the Ministerial declaration “Inland Navigation ‎in a Global Setting” adopted at the International Conference on Inland Water Transport on 18 April 2018 in Wrocław, ‎Poland, which was supported by resolution No. 265 “Facilitating the Development of Inland Water Transport” of 22 ‎February 2019 of the UNECE Inland Transport Committee. ‎

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