Rural Waterways:  Water for Access and Mobility

It is obvious for everybody that water is important and will be even more important with climate change and global warming, which effects will impact on the future scarcity of water.  Water for drinking, for irrigation, for power, for the industry, for sustaining the ecosystem and as a source of food.  Little is said about water for mobility and access.

Technology, Energy and the Environment: An example

To talk about rural people who depend exclusively on water transport, it often means to talk about people with less economic advantages, scarce resources and isolated from other areas.  Their mobility and access needs are often to take children to school, fishermen to work, mothers and their children to a health centre, farmers to their production areas, traders to sell their produce, and outsiders into the community.

Depending on different factors like availability of local materials, costs and purpose, small and medium-size boats can be built of wood, metal, cement and the light glassfibre.  And depending on the costs, different types of engines are attached to the vessels to reduce the time of travelling.

Engines range from 'stationary' engines (3 to 15 HP) to outboard engines. In certain areas of the Amazon Basin and in the Mekong Delta long-tail boats are very common.  Their low-cost engine in terms of price and easiness to repair and maintain locally, the availability of material to make the propellers by hand with recycled material, creating jobs and sources of income, gives communities with scarce economic resources the opportunity to move people and load at a faster speed.  The sustainability of long-tail boats is subject to, like many other transport vehicles, energy sources and energy price.  The scarcer the gasoline the higher it will cost and long-tail engines will have to look for alternative power engines.

Some Implications

It has not been just one case that some important basins in the world have had to endure the effects of several trends of exploitation, be it wood, rubber, power, mining, oil, coca and others.  Such industries have often brought along a temporary boom of 'economic development' but at the expense of destroying local people's livelihoods and even populations.  In terms of 'accommodation' from the community to the new imposed life-style a disadvantageous distortion of prices often makes communities more vulnerable and even poorer.  In the Orinoquia and the Peruvian Amazon low highlands, for example, where unlawful coca leaves are cultivated and cocaine produced and traded, among other less profitable farming activities, river transport is costly.  Costly not only due to gasoline being scarce but because poor people with lots of cash have put into fashion expensive outboard engine vessels for transportation, leaving those with less economic resources reduced to longer isolation.


During 2002-2004, IFRTD decided to carry out a group of case studies on water transport in different regions of developing countries.  The main findings of the international research programme were:

  • Where people depend exclusively on water transport, a means of transport, however small, is important for accessing health, education and other services; (in land transport people can still walk long distances to reach its destination, whereas in water transport it is not the case that people can swim to get to their destination)
  • Where people depend exclusively on water transport, they are more likely to be affected by those who provide services, i.e. transport operators, and the quality of services provided in terms of opportunity, time, price, safety, etc.
  • Rural water transport is a means of employment (boat operators, porters, repairmen)
  • Rural water transport is important for trading, bringing traders and new products, traders and their business which could often have also a downside on vulnerable economic populations and fragile environments.

Early findings on a case study from a remote rural area in the Peruvian Amazon participating in the current mobility and health networked research programme show that:

  • A telephone communication system between the community and the nearest health centre could be an advantage for bringing urgent medical care to the community
  • Fuel is expensive and scarce; it is often provided by the health centre for transporting the ill at no cost for the patient; however, by no means the emergency vessel would be used for transporting a patient once he or she has recovered.
  • The ambulance boat can pick up a patient much quicker. However less positive is the fact that the vessel is far from being adequate to transport a patient. Often it doesn't have protection against the sun or the rain, which could bring added injuries to the patient.  An improved ambulance boat is a challenge as the vessels that operate in the Peruvian Amazon have a particular design where the engine is at the rear.  Putting a roof, however light, on the boat, will reduce the visibility of the boat operator putting at higher risk his life and that of those in the vessel.


When it comes to policy, it is possible that more than one sector has a stake on the development of waterways.  In a case study in the Peruvian Amazon, it was found out that not only the Ministry of Transport (River Transport Management) but four other government institutions have a say on the development of river transport.  They are the Municipality, the Harbour Master's Office, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fishing and Energy and the Ministry of Tourism.  This would be alright if their competencies wouldn't overlap and when problems, they would coordinate.
Research carried out under IFRTD's Poverty Watch and Waterways and Livelihoods programme showed that when waterways are taking into account, the support often follows in terms of infrastructure, in the best of the cases, with means of transport and transport services left to spontaneous business.

Information Resources

More detailed information on this subject could be found in the case studies carried out under the Rural Waterways and Livelihoods Programme: www.ruralwaterways.org

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