Inland Navigation - An Instrument of Peace and Prosperity in Shared Basins

April 04, 2018


Historians attribute the integration and unification of China to the Grand Canal - an inland navigation channel connecting north and south, developed 2,500 years ago, by linking five major rivers including Yellow and Yangtze. Erie Canal was built in USA in 1825 to provide inland navigation access from the port of New York to the mid-west. Erie Canal is said to have strengthened the Union and kept them together during the Civil War. Similarly, in Europe, Transboundary Rivers are extensively used for inland navigation and considered the backbone of unity and peace within the European Union.

In a 1921 Treaty between the British Raj and Afghanistan, Afghanistan agreed to allow the British to use Kabul River for navigation. Kabul River still maintains its navigation potential to facilitate trade and commerce within the Basin. It can potentially serve as an instrument of peace while devising a Kabul River Basin sharing formula between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

LEAD Pakistan hosted an interactive session on 'Inland Navigation - An Instrument of Peace and Prosperity in Shared Basins' as part of its LEADING Perspectives series on Managing Shared Basins. The guest speaker for this session, Dr. Hassan Abbas, explored river navigation, which is of mutual benefit to both Pakistan and Afghanistan in terms of reaching lasting peace and prosperity within the benefit sharing framework of the Kabul River Basin. This talk built a case taking into account historical, social, economic and technical dimensions involved in the process.

Historical significance of Inland Navigation in the Indus

Indus in 1835 and Planet and Satellite in 1843 were the first steamers on the Indus River, with the latter initially used for British military operations and later to operate a fortnightly postal mail service between Karachi and Multan. The most prominent freight and passenger steamship company, by the name of Indus Flotilla, operated from 1858 to 1870, handling the cargo between Karachi and Multan with a terminal at Jhirk.

By 1865, a railway line had connected Multan with Delhi via Lahore and Amritsar providing a river-rail passage for cargo entering from Karachi all the way up to Delhi and rest of the sub-continent. Albeit inefficient as a way of transportation, the Indus Flotilla was an essential means of inland navigation in the sub-continent. However, as the railway network continued to develop, responsibility of freight transportation was increasingly shifted to the Railways and The Indus Flotilla Company was amalgamated with the Railways in 1870.

With famine hitting the sub-continent in 1976-77, food security became a foremost priority and British engineers saw more economic potential in building irrigation canals. Development of railways took care of inland transportation needs and the rivers were diverted into irrigation canals to transform the river basin into what is known as the largest contiguous irrigation system of the world. By now, the demise of the Indus Flotilla was imminent and the company phased out after Karachi was connected to Lahore via railways.

Navigation Potential in the Kabul River Basin

Issues of shared water resources among upper and lower riparian states are becoming complex due to the impacts of extreme climatic variability and change, rising water demand and environmental concerns.

The Kabul River Basin is divided into five regions covering both Afghanistan and Pakistan the two basin states of Kabul River. The Kabul River originates from the Konar hydrologic region of the Kabul River on the Pakistan side. The Konar River drains into the Afghanistan part of the Konar hydrologic region and then enters into Pakistan at Attock. This means that Kabul River Basin has a unique position in which both countries are upstream and downstream of each other. Moreover, Kabul River is the only river of Afghanistan which is a tributary to a river system the Indus River, which ends in the Indian Ocean.

The only treaty related to water in the Kabul basin is the 1921 Treaty between Afghanistan and Great Britain. In the treaty, Afghanistan agreed to permit British officers and tribes on the British side of the border (now Pakistan) to use the Kabul River for navigation in return of access to water through a pipeline for use by the residents of Torkham. Kabul River still maintains its navigation potential to facilitate trade and commerce within the basin. It also potentially serves an instrument of peace while devising a Kabul River Basin sharing formula between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Economic viability

Pakistan and Afghanistan constitute about USD 2 billion of bilateral trade, in which more than 50% are the exports from Pakistan. Transit-trade between Pakistan and Afghanistan is about USD 3 billion and involves the movement of 50,000 containers of commercial cargo. It costs approximately USD 4000 to move a single container from Karachi to the Pak-Afghan border, amounting to USD 0.2 billion paid in transportation cost, about 6% of the total worth of the transit-trade. Moving this cargo from sea into Kabul can cost 20 times less than the current cost.

Advantages of inland water ways in trade and commerce for both countries are manifold in terms of facilitating transit and bilateral trade between Afghanistan and Pakistan and opening facilities to Central Asian states. Moreover, a project of such magnitude attracts business opportunities and provides huge potential to contemporary market. The economic viability of developing inland waterways is also linked to the limited potential of growth in the transport sector due to a lack of infrastructure capacity. One barrage can potentially replace 140 trucks saving congestion and fuel.

In addition, inland navigation system will not replace agriculture. Instead, it can enhance agricultural productivity if efficient irrigation is emphasized. There is substantial dependence on river-based irrigation systems in the basin that is drying out the rivers and increasing irrigation demands calling for damming and diverting even the leftover waters from environmentally degraded rivers. Efficient irrigation can spare half the water being diverted from the rivers, which would only be economically viable if the water saved through efficiency can lead to more profit. Basin-scale investments in irrigation efficiency, therefore, make good economic sense.

Technological advantage

The most evident advantage of tapping inland navigation potential of Kabul and Indus rivers at present lies in the availability and access to advanced technology. Smart tools provide high resolution databases to assist in exploration of potential areas. Technology enables solutions to improving efficiency in inland waterway freight including improved vessel design, installation of equipment aimed at efficient loading and unloading of cargo, and technologies focusing on energy efficiencies and high performance propellers and nozzles.

Environmental sustainability

The lowered demand on water has the capacity to lower water-related tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan. In both cases, the upper riparian states would reap benefits by releasing water in the rivers flowing through Pakistan into the Arabian Sea. Efficient irrigation practices would help arrest land degradation, prevent pollution, and increase per acre yields. The transportation sector would save on fuel and help reduce its carbon footprint. With more water in the rivers, the environment all the way to the Indus Delta would thrive, encouraging ecotourism. Riparian forests and wetlands would benefit from the water flow, and help sequester more carbon and greenhouse gasses.


An Indus Inland Water System connecting eastern tributaries all the way into India, and Kabul River all the way into Afghanistan can have vast potential for the economy and environment. This is possible if inland water systems are integrated and synergized with other sectors such as irrigation and environment. Rules, regulations, by-laws and institutional structures must be developed not only to ensure sustainable operations of waterways but also for sustainable development plans for the potential inland ports and towns. It is crucial to constitute mitigation measures for a number of aspects including hurdles involved, policing of waterways and developing a coordination mechanism between provinces/states.

Development of a 200 km commercial waterway on Indus River between Attock and Daudkhel is a step forward. This pilot project managed by the Indus Water Transport Development Company (IWTDC) of Government of Punjab aims to demonstrate the effectiveness of this mode of transport. However, aspects of irrigation efficiency and environment are not integrated raising concerns about its environmental implications. The route between Attock and Daudkhel does not connect major business centers limiting its economic potential in terms of trade and commerce. IWTDC must consider harnessing these missed opportunities along with connecting to eastern tributaries of Indus up to India and Kabul River leading to Afghanistan.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this Update are intended to capture the discussion and debate generated by the speaker. They do not represent the opinions of LEAD Pakistan or any other organisation.