“I am the river, sit and listen to my wisdom” (Ian Menard, 1994). Rivers and other water bodies have been essential to human existence since the beginning of time due to their varied uses such as transportation, irrigation, fishing, tourism, and hydropower generation. They are a significant foothold for local and regional socio-economic development. Inland waterways (IW) are navigable bodies of water that are central to the movement of cargoes and passengers with the use of watercraft such as pontoons, boats, ferries, water buses, canoes, and cargo barges. Rivers, lakes, streams, lagoons, and canals are all examples of navigable inland waterways (IW).
Ghana is gifted with numerous inland bodies of water. The Volta Lake, along with the upstream Volta Rivers, Afram River, and the Oti River, are Ghana’s most prominent inland waterways (IW). The Volta Lake, one of the world’s largest artificial lakes, which was formed after the construction of the Akosombo dam, covers an area of about 8,500 km2. The entire Volta system spans about 1,600 kilometres and drains an area of approximately 388,000 square kilometres, of which about 158,000 square kilometres are within Ghana.
However, there is little information on the navigability of other water bodies in Ghana, including the Pra and Ankobrah Rivers, which were previously essential sources of cargo transport. Other smaller rivers and major independent rivers, such as the Birim, Densu and Tano, can be found in various areas around the country, and some of them may be navigable but not to their full length.
These numerous water bodies can be exploited to enhance inland water transportation (IWT). The Volta system, for example, can connect the southern, middle, northern belts, and landlocked countries. This can be done in conjunction with establishing an integrated multimodal transportation corridor because inland waterways (IW) lack continuous connectivity.
This mode of transportation is widely used in many countries as an alternate means of transport. It accounts for approximately 8.5 percent of the total cargo movement in the United States, 8.3 percent in China, 38 percent in the Netherlands, 24 percent in Belgium, and 13 percent in Germany. In Ghana, however, inland waters (IW) are underutilised; road transport accounts for approximately 95 percent of the country’s freight and passenger traffic.
So far, the Volta Lake Transport Company (VLTC) is a major commercial operator of inland water transportation (IWT) on the Volta Lake for passengers, cargo, and cross-ferry services. Nevertheless, the indigenous people who live along most rivers and other bodies of water in Ghana have been using wooden canoes for transportation and other activities since time immemorial.
The Government of Ghana, through the Ministry of Transport, has made some efforts to scale up the operations of the Volta Lake Transport Company (VLTC) and Inland Water Transportation (IWT) on Volta Lake through the Volta Lake Improvement Project with the help of the Korean Exim Bank. The Ghana Maritime Authority (GMA) has also made significant efforts over the years to promote the safety of lake users and to remove tree stumps which have been a major source of accidents on the Volta Lake. While all these efforts are laudable, government must commit more resources to uncover Ghana’s hidden treasures in Inland Water Transportation (IWT).
Advantages of inland waterways (IW)
In terms of comparative analysis, it is critical to recognise that Inland Water Transportation (IWT) is more advantageous than any other mode of transportation. For example, one litre of fuel will move 24 tonnes over one km on the road, 85 tonnes over the rail per km, and 105 tonnes per km over Inland Water Transportation (IWT), making it very fuel-efficient. However, the cost argument about the Inland Water Transportation (IWT) is not static and must be put into perspective because it is accurate when it comes to single-mode carriages other than those that require door-to-door or cargo transfer in addition.
Other benefits of Inland Water Transportation (IWT) include environmental friendliness, job creation, revenue generation for government and private sector, improved modes of transportation for people, increased trade and commerce, and stimulating seamless interconnectivity that connects hinterlands along navigable rivers and coastal routes.
The inland waterway (IW) provides a rare opportunity for tourism traffic and growth. The natural beauty of the Volta Lake, lagoons, rivers, and streams can attract many domestic and international tourists who want to travel through these waterways to see the natural life of the people who live there, as well as the scenic views.
The development of inland waterways (IW) will offer impetus to the Domestic Draft (Cabotage) Bill, 2017, which is currently before the Parliament of Ghana, when assented into law.
Recommendations for inland waterways (IW) development
Our bodies of water must be assessed and consequently, comprehensive feasibility, viability and desirability studies must be conducted, particularly for those that show prospects of navigability after preliminary investigations have been done. Its financial, social, environmental, and economic implications must all be considered simultaneously. These inland waterways (IW), as a preferred option, should be evaluated in terms of their cost and benefit.
An Inland Waterways Master Plan (IWMP) should be developed based on the results of the comprehensive feasibility, desirability and viability studies. We cannot achieve short, medium, and long-term planning and development of inland waterways (IW) as a viable form of transportation without a master plan. In Ghana, there is a master plan for road and railway networks that simplifies planning and investment in that sector; however, the same cannot be said for inland waterways (IW).
The planning of the Inland Waterways (IW) must be transparent and participatory, with the involvement of civil society groups, relevant stakeholders, and, most importantly, the local communities who live along with the water bodies and may be adversely affected during the developmental and maintenance stages of the waterways.
Alternatively, Ghana could take a more focused approach, developing only ‘commercially significant’ Inland Waterways (IW), as other countries do. This will allow for the more prudent use of scarce resources to develop more economically viable waterways instead.
Inland Water Transport (IWT) is intermodal in nature and therefore not self-dependent. There is a need for effective road, rail, and coastal shipping integration from the Inland Waterways (IW) to enhance their seamless connectivity. That is why projects like the Tema – Mpakadan Railway Project are essential for the transport of cargo through seamless integration with other modes of transportation.
To ensure the construction and availability of vessels, a deliberate support-based policy must be in place. In Ghana, people are currently constructing smaller vessels out of fibreglass and bamboo. The capabilities of these indigenous vessel builders must be expanded to support the development of our Inland Water Transport (IWT) with a Strategic funding and Subsidy Scheme, and Tax and Custom Concession Plan for both the builders and buyers.
Modal shift incentives can be used to attract cargo traffic to Inland Water Transport (IWT). The incentives are usually offered to certain types of cargoes that make use of the Inland Water Transport (IWT). Modal split can also be used to split cargo among Inland Water Transport (IWT) and other modes of transportation. These are all policy frameworks that can be implemented to make Inland Water Transport (IWT) commercially viable and competitive.
The central government’s allocation of funds for the development and maintenance of our Inland Waterways (IW) has been either non-existent or abysmal. Year after year, statutory budgets are presented without mentioning Inland Waterways (IW), in contrast to roads and railways, which receive significant budgetary support. The same commitment to Inland Waterways (IW) development and maintenance will ensure its rapid growth.
A River Information Systems (RIS) must be strongly considered to offer vessel traffic management systems and real-time exchange of information to aid in navigation. To protect life and property, the Ghana Maritime Authority (GMA) should expedite the installation of navigational aids on all Inland Waterways (IW) to enhance day and night navigation.
The Ghana Maritime Authority (GMA) may engage local manufacturers to produce life jackets on their behalf and distribute it to watercraft and traditional boat owners who navigate our Inland and Coastal Waterways for purchase on an instalment scheme. This could be a safety measure while also providing GMA with a footing to strictly enforce the use of lifejackets in our Inland and Coastal Waters.
The governance structure must be streamlined to determine which institution will have oversight and operational responsibility for Inland Water Ports. Could it be the Volta River Authority (VRA), Ghana Maritime Authority (GMA), Volta Lake Transport Company (VLTC), or Ghana Ports and Harbours Authority (GPHA)?
In comparison to other modes of transportation, Inland Water Transport (IWT) has several advantages. Regardless, Inland Waterways (IW) face unique challenges such as the level of investment required, the availability of insufficient water depth during the dry season, infrastructure, and maintenance, among others. It is trite that Inland Water Transport (IWT) has had a negligible impact in Ghana. These should necessitate a greater governmental and private-sector commitment to the development, maintenance, and operations of our Inland Waterways (IW)
The writer is Executive Director, Institute for African Maritime Development