Water transportation is the intentional movement of water over large distances. Methods of transportation fall into three categories:
- aqueducts, which include pipelines, canals, and tunnels,
- container shipment, which includes transport by tank truck, tank car, and tank ship, and
- towing, where a tugboat is used to pull an iceberg or a large water bag along behind it.
Due to its weight, the transportation of water is very energy intensive. Unless it has the assistance of gravity, a canal or long-distance pipeline will need pumping stations at regular intervals. In this regard, the lower friction levels of the canal make it a more economical solution than the pipeline. Water transportation is also very common along rivers and oceans.
Inland waterways play a vital role in economic development, especially for remote rural areas. While the potential role for this sector depends considerably on the specific regional context, such as geographical conditions, level of road development, and socio-economic conditions, the following highlights some general advantages of inland waterway transport (IWT) noted by contributors (and supported by the International Forum for Rural Transport and Development research):
- Cost advantages - Water transport can be a very cost effective alternative to road transportation as the transport network already exists naturally and often requires no or little improvement to be functional. Many industries such as construction, mining, and forestry rely on low cost transportation through inland waterway systems to reach the market. For Rural Water Transport in particular, landing facilities are often not required for small vessels and, if required, may be relatively low-cost. Investing in small improvement of the water transport system along with the promoting of improvement to existing means of transport may be a very low-cost and low maintenance opportunity.
- Reduce isolation - Investment in rural waterways' technologies, infrastructure, and services has the potential to reduce the isolation of the very poor. Inland waterways provide the only viable means of transport to access vital services such as schools, health centers, markets, government services, and clean water for many remote underprivileged communities who would be inaccessible or too costly to service by other means, particularly in the Asia Pacific region. Viet Nam provides an innovative example, where boat ambulances have been established to bring health services to people, and boats that take children to and from school.
- Enhancing economic opportunities / Employment - Water transport is important for direct employment, such as boat building and fishing livelihoods, as well indirectly, allowing poor people to access employment in the cities while living in less expensive locations. Increased mobility also plays a key role in supporting livelihoods by providing rural producers, such as farmers and fisherman, a means to access their end-markets. For example, in Bangladesh some four million people are thought to earn their living transporting foods and passengers along the country's waterways, providing an estimated 60% of all employment in the transport sector.
- Economically and ecologically sustainable transport solution - IWT is considered an environmentally friendly, energy-efficient and low-emission transport mode - that enables in particular bulk transport at a lower emission discharge than road transport - and can play a key role in establishing sustainable transport systems. A shift from road transport to IWT for both cargo and passengers usually contributes to more efficient use of resources and energy. For example, the government of in Thailand has pursued the expansion of commuter services on waterways around Bangkok to relieve the extreme road traffic congestion in the city.
The historical development of water-based transportation is connected to the importance of domestic and international trade. Early exploration of North America identified large amounts of natural resources such as fisheries, timber, and furs. Trade centers were established along the east coast of North America where goods could be gathered together and ocean vessels could transport them to consumers in Europe and other foreign areas.
Waterways in developing countries are critical avenues for local and regional commerce. Fruit and vegetable vendors flock to floating markets on rivers and canals, such as this in Thailand and Vietnam.