In the face of expanding economies and an increased demand for transport facilities throughout the world, Inland Water Transport (IWT) is often shown to be the preferred alternative from not only an economic standpoint, but also in terms of environmental conservation. However, in many countries, this alternative is contested in the name of environmentalism. This argument is fuelled by past errors whereby drastic river development schemes indeed had damaging consequences for the environment simply because insufficient precautions were taken. Moreover, in many cases, the main aim of the scheme was not river navigation, but one or another of the numerous uses that have been made of our rivers since time immemorial.
Current development methods include the necessary measures for reconciling the requirements of different uses. The overriding aim has become planning for the future with a strict regard for sustainable development. Within the context of these new methods, it is important that new projects be assessed taking into consideration the main natural functions of river systems; in other words, that they ensure maintenance of the key functions and ecological functions, including:
- Morphological processes (erosion, transport and sedimentation)
- Maintenance of hydrological balance (e.g., flood pulse)
- Maintenance of the sediment balance
- Provision of habitat (ecological continuum)
- Maintenance of biological and chemical processes (nutrient cycles)
Maintaining these processes does not mean that any change has to be prohibited, but rather that each process must be carefully examined, that "before" and "after" situations have to be accurately assessed and that all possible consequences must be appreciated and considered with respect to the economic or other benefits derived from project implementation. This overall assessment must be carried out not just at the local level, but also for the river basin as a whole. In other words, the assessment of waterway schemes (from the ecological, economic and social standpoints) should be carried out for the scheme as a whole, rather than for its individual components, considering all alternatives and taking into account river basin management objectives.
Navigation is a unique mode of transport with the potential to use a resource without long-term adverse consequences. Vessels can be adapted to the conditions of particular rivers, rather than the waterway adapted to common standards and designs. Measures to achieve needed depth, clearance, width, or velocity can be selected to minimize impacts upon important waterway functions. These measures can even be modified to provide environmental enhancements.
Financing institutions and governments need to ensure that the full environmental and social costs and the long-term effects of proposed waterway schemes are included in cost-benefit analyses. Affected parties must fully participate in the decision-making process regarding any waterway. This includes actively participating through the entire project cycle, from identification and preparation to implementation and evaluation. Therefore, a legal and institutional framework for civil society participation at the national and local levels must be established. Local participation in decision- making is, therefore, essential. Participation is not merely a set of formal requirements but also a cost-effective source of added value for long-term sustainable use of rivers as transportation ways.
Effective participation calls for full access to information, a time schedule appropriate to local social and cultural conditions and adequate resources. It also includes empowerment (i.e., capacity building by education and technical assistance) to enable citizens and organizations to assert their rights and interest in the process. Case studies presented in the Appendices illustrate lessons to be learned on different steps in the proposed procedure. It has to be stressed that these cases, like any other IWT project, stand on their own, with unique historical, political and financial backgrounds. Nevertheless, we hope that for future projects these guidelines will contribute to a sustainable development of IWT as an environmentally and economically feasible friendly mode of transport.