Smart Rivers Becomes a Global Exercise United States, Russia and China came to Austria to exchange know-how with Europe on inland navigation
By Hélène Masliah-Gilkarov, via donau, Vienna, Austria
From September 6-9, 2009, the Vienna City Hall was the place to be for the "movers and shakers" in the field of inland navigation. The 4th International Congress of Smart Rivers '21 registered a record attendance with 300 participants from 25 countries, including a 60-person delegation from the United States, as well as representatives of the Russian Federal Agency of Maritime and River Transport, the Yangtze River Waterborne Transportation Institute and the Indian Ministry of Transport. They were all there to discuss ways of ensuring and expanding the proper place of inland water transport in the global supply chain.
Following congresses in Pittsburgh, Brussels and Louisville, Vienna was the host of the discussions on the future of inland navigation. The Smart Rivers conference series provides a forum for participants from around the world to continue finding ways to improve inland waterway operations. The dialogue on trends, policy, technology and science can assist in establishing a common set of standards and operational approaches. The focus on cross-fertilization of ideas engenders more efficient and reliable inland waterway systems worldwide. Furthermore, the public awareness on inland navigation is increasing. With the looming threat of climate change, inland navigation is getting the leading edge on environment-friendly and cost-effective innovation in the field of transport.
This transport mode may be using the climate change debate to increase the awareness of the potential of inland navigation for a wider public, but this clean transport mode is also more specifically dealing with problems ranging from infrastructure to jobs and to ensuring and expanding its important place in the overall volume of traffic and the global supply chain. The high participation at the conference showed that the efforts of major international organizations and companies in Europe and the U.S. since the smart rivers '21 initiative was started back in 2005 have not been in vain. The organizers, Otto Schwetz, President of the PIANC Section Austria, and Reinhard Pfliegl, CEO of Austria Tech, supported by the Austrian Waterway Maintenance Agency, via donau and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, put together an intensive programme which included technical sessions, industry exhibits, and networking events. The participants who came to hear about the latest and most interesting developments in the field of inland navigation could choose from four parallel session blocks with themes ranging from financial concerns, infrastructure, ports, new technologies in River Information Services (RIS), performance measurements, education and training or climate change – the choice was difficult!
The PIANC section of Austria is the local chapter of the World Association for Waterborne Transport Infrastructure PIANC, a network of experts who cooperate in international working groups to develop new solutions which benefit the entire inland navigation sector around the world. According to Eric van den Eede, President of PIANC International, the fact that the European Union is pushing the road and rail sector has great repercussions on the IWT sector. Therefore, PIANC is looking for partners in the EU countries in order to reinforce the position of the waterway as an integral part of the European infrastructure policy.
One of the key messages from the conference was conveyed by Otto Schwetz; for Mr. Schwetz inland navigation can greatly contribute to make transport more environmentally-friendly. On rail and road the capacities have almost been exhausted; on the waterways, there is still plenty of room for cargo. In Europe, for instance, only 10 percent of the transport capacities of the Danube waterway are utilized.
The U.S. perception is similar: According to Daniel Mecklenborg, chairman of the U.S. Waterways Council, quoting a study by the Texas Transportation Institute, "inland navigation has to be promoted as it is a vital element of a healthy economy and a great asset for the fight against the consequences of climate change." Mr. Mecklenborg explained during the plenary session on 7 September that given the large transport capacities in the U.S. – for instance if 60% of U.S. grain transports would not be made via waterways but on the road – the repercussions on the environment would be dramatic.
Another key message from the conference was the importance of cross-border networking. In Europe, the EU action programme NAIADES was set up in order to stimulate and enhance the use of inland navigation in Europe. In some of the EU countries, national action plans have been developed for inland navigation. While the EU strongly supports rail transport, it also wishes to see more goods transported on waterways where capacities are underutilized.
In the U.S., there are 40,000 km of navigable waterways, of which 12,000 are defined as "Inland Marine Highways for freight." In the region of St. Louis alone, the use of rivers for goods transport saves 200 percent of road transport and 500 percent traffic congestion on the highways. Without the use of inland navigation, the infrastructure costs would almost double, from 345 Million USD to 721 Million USD.
Europeans and Americans can learn a lot from each other. This has been confirmed by the 4th International congress of Smart Rivers '21, The Future of Inland Navigation. In America, inland navigation could be tagged as a "lone warrior" as it does not benefit from the networking framework with the other transport modes enjoyed in Europe. Multi-modality has only recently begun to make its way into U.S. mentalities. And while Europe can count on reliable and constantly updated intelligent information systems such as River Information Services (RIS), still a foreign concept in the U.S., the American rivers can carry three times more goods than the European Inland waterway network. The Europeans have created standards in the education of IWT personnel, yet a specific vocational program with shipping training schools does not yet exist in the U.S. The Europeans in turn, enjoy a non-bureaucratic access to inland navigation and the central regulation of this transport mode. The fact that many countries are involved makes the decision-making process for IWT-related issues a more sensitive issue on European level.
The Smart Rivers '21 Congress might be over but the work continues. The conclusions of this event, written up by Otto Schwetz, will be made available soon. They will be used as a work of reference for the next event in this series, scheduled for Fall 2011 in New Orleans.