Rural Waterways

Webpage developed with the assistance of IFRTD.

Rural Waterways: Water for Access and Mobility

To note the importance of water on our lives is to more than state the obvious, especially now as climate change and global warming threaten the future availability of water. It is important for drinking, for irrigation, for power, for industry, for sustaining the ecosystem and as a source of food. But little is said about the role of water in mobility and access.

Technology, Energy and the Environment - An example

Rural people who depend exclusively on water transport often have fewer economic advantages, scarce resources and find themselves isolated from other areas. Those whose mobility and access may be affected include children going to school, fishermen to work, mothers and their children attending a health centre, farmers reaching their production areas, traders being able to sell their produce, and outsiders visiting the community.

Depending on the availability of local material, costs and needs for example, small and medium-size boats can be built out of wood, metal and even light fibreglass. And depending on the cost, engines (of various types) are often attached to the vessels to help reduce travel time.

Engines can 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 and enable communities with scarce economic resources to move people and goods quicker. Moreover, their engines are cheap, not only to buy, but also to maintain - propellers can be made by hand, using locally-available, recycled materials. This in turn creates jobs, improves local income and boosts rural economies. Of course, the sustainability of long-tail boats is, like many other transport vehicles, subject to the availability of energy sources and to energy costs - the scarcer the fuel the more it will cost and long-tail engines may have to be replaced by alternative power engines.

Some Implications

Some of the world's most important basins have unfortunately had to endure the effects of industrial exploitation, be it wood, rubber, power, mining, oil, coca or others. Such industries often bring a temporary boom of 'economic development' but at the expense of destroying local people's livelihoods and even affecting whole populations. Communities are forced to adapt to new 'imposed' lifestyles and distorted prices make them more vulnerable and even poorer. In the Orinoquia and the Peruvian Amazon low highlands, for example, unlawful coca leaves are cultivated and cocaine is produced and traded, (alongside other less profitable farming activities) raising the cost of river transport. This is not only due to the scarcity of gasoline but to the fact that poor people, having made some money, buy expensive outboard-engine boats for transportation, leaving those with fewer economic resources even more isolated.

Insufficient attention is paid to modal interchange. There are usually insufficient infrastructure facilities such as jetties, slipways or quays to facilitate safe and convenient land-water transfer of people and goods. This can be due to government sector responsibilities for water and surface transport being separate and poor communications between those responsible for infrastructure provision and maintenance.


From 2002-2004, the International Forum for Rural Transport and Development carried 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; (on land people can still walk long distances to reach their destination, whereas with 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, boat builders, repairmen)
  • Rural water transport is important for trade, bringing together buyers, sellers and new products, (however, this exchange could be of detriment on vulnerable economic populations and fragile environments.)
  • Early findings from a case study, being undertaken in a remote rural area in the Peruvian Amazon as part of the current IFRTD-coordinated mobility and health networked research programme show that:
  1. A telephone communication system between the community and the nearest health centre could be important for bringing urgent medical care to the community
  2. Fuel is expensive and scarce; it is often provided by the health centre in order to transport the sick at no cost to the patient; however, by no means would the emergency vessel be used for transporting the patient once he or she has recovered.
  3. On the positive side, ambulance boats are able to get to patients in some rural areas quick enough. However, they are far from adequate in terms of transporting patients, with no protection from the sun or rain causing additional implications on patients' health. Improving ambulance boats in this area would prove challenging, as those operating in the Peruvian Amazon have a particular design with the engine is at the rear. Putting a roof on the boat, however light the roof, would reduce the visibility of the boat operator, risking both his life and that of the others onboard.


When it comes to policy, it is often the case that more than one sector has a stake in the development of waterways. In a case study in the Peruvian Amazon, it was found that not only the Ministry of Transport (River Transport Management) but four other government institutions had a say on the development of river transport. They were the Municipality, the Harbour Master's Office, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fishing and Energy and the Ministry of Tourism. This would all be acceptable if their competencies did not overlap, and if, where problems arose, each of them would provide support to those affected rather than avoid responsibility.

Research carried out by IFRTD as part of their Poverty Watch and Rural Waterways and Livelihoods programmes, showed that when waterways are attended to, support is often in the form of infrastructure. On the positive side, this could include improvements such as a municipal wharf, for example, but such improvements do not incorporate key areas like means of transport and transport services.

Information Resources


If you would like to make a contribution to this topic or help to 'sign-post' any key documents on the topic for gTKP partners and users, please contact Rob Petts:

Updated March 2010