Home Insider An Upgraded River Transport System will Increase Access, Save Money

An Upgraded River Transport System will Increase Access, Save Money

F or thousands of years, Myanmar’s river network has reliably provided the country with fresh water, irrigation for one of the most extensive rice cultivation basins of the world, and over 9,600 kilometers of navigable river. However, these 9,600 kilometers have never been used to their full potential as a reliable mode of transportation within the country. If Myanmar wants to modernize and make transportation more accessible to more citizens, developing a functioning river system is a crucial step.

An Underdeveloped River Network

Myanmar has an extensive river network that is well positioned to serve the country’s main transport corridors, including the link between Yangon and Mandalay. However, for many years the rivers have essentially been used in their natural state. This neglect in development has led to two main problems in today’s river transport infrastructure.

The first main problem is a lack of navigational systems. It is difficult to navigate the main rivers of Myanmar because of shallow waters during the dry season which can shift the navigation channels. Navigation channels therefore are not well defined nor sufficiently marked. Also, nautical charts providing crucial information for safe navigation are not available so vessels using the rivers are left to fend for themselves. This has given river transport a less than favorable reputation among travelers in regards to safety.

The second main problem is the lack of terminal facilities (i.e. often, there is only a beach landing with planks). This results in very slow loading and unloading operations and creates long waiting times at docks.

The limited navigation systems and absence of port facilities has led to fewer vessels using the network – and these vessels that do use tend to be small. River transport, however, generally appeals to larger vessels that carry bulk cargo – usually farming products,oil, cement, construction materials, wood products. However, in Myanmar bulk cargo is still mostly transported via road. This has resulted in a large loss of opportunity for the transportation sector: the market share of river transport is only six percent for inland distance freight and only 1.5 percent for passengers, according to the 2014 Permanent International Association of Navigation Congress held in San Francisco.

Steps to Building a Reliable, Profitable River Transportation Network

According to the reports published by Asian Development Bank, small investments are sufficient to improve the development of river transport. The investments should be concentrated on two objectives: (1) improving the Ayeyarwaddy River Channel and the navigation conditions between Yangon and Mandalay, and (2) developing basic river port terminals, gradually enabling mechanized operations.

Navigational improvements is the best place to start in developing the network as it will ensure both the safety and efficiency of this mode of transportation. The problem with current navigation system is that Directorate of Water Resources and Improvement ofRiver System (DIWR) has been unable to guarantee a minimum level of navigation conditions on the waterways. According to the reports, DWIR spend much effort to survey, mark, and dredge critical points, but due to the natural conditions of river, the location of the thalweg can shift from one day to another, which happens often on the Ayeyarwaddy River. This makes the river slow, as the vessel risks being stranded on a river sandbank. ADB proposed that DWIR should standardize the stretches of the river system into categories, linking navigability to draught limitation (and channel characteristics) after thorough analysis of the rivers, especially the Ayeyarwaddy River, made by ADB.

Another perspective to consider is channelization, which is the preferred way to make small-scale least available depth (LAD) improvement. According to the veterans of river transport sector, by fixing the thalweg in one location through dredging, using riverbank training structures (i.e. groins), and stabilizing banks, the main flow of the water becomes concentrated and maintains an increased depth through natural erosion.

Once the channel is improved, it is needed to maintain the standards assiduously. But this will require higher resources. If properly maintained, a system based on these standards will have the capacity to meet all foreseeable demand for years to come.

Finally, for the improvement of the river ports, there needs to be development of the mechanization of the ports, mechanization of vessels, and night port operation. Mechanized operations can only be introduced gradually due to the nature of the river and the slow turnover of riverside operations which raises costs and constrains the use of large vessels. Low-cost options for river ports such as floating docks, should be installed before considering more costly permanent structures. Only after that, permanent structures such as lighting the ports to enable night operations, encouraging the use of conveyor belts (possibly outside of designated port areas), and introducing crane operations in Yangon first – and then in Mandalay – should be established.

If properly maintained, a system based on these standards will have the capacity to meet all foreseeable demand for years to come.