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:
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.