Skip to main content

The case for

Canals and rivers

SSPL/Getty Images

Last week’s blockage in the Suez Canal was a reminder of how dependent we are on our waterways.

Why is the Suez Canal so important?
About 13% of the world’s goods pass through it – $9.6bn worth every day. Without it, ships travelling from Asia to Europe would have to chug all the way around Africa, adding weeks (and tens of thousands of dollars) to every trip. Ever since it was completed in 1869, the Suez Canal has been a vital artery of global trade. Even before that, Egypt’s rulers spent thousands of years making huge efforts, some quite successful, to link the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. The first navigable canal between the Red Sea and the Nile was opened by Persian emperor Darius the Great circa 500BC.

Have waterways always mattered so much?
Always. The earliest known canals were built by the earliest known civilisations. The Mesopotamians were digging canals to irrigate what is now Iraq and Iran way back in 4,000BC. And virtually all cities are built on rivers: people settled in Paris for the Seine and London for the Thames. During the Industrial Revolution, however, we spent about a century neglecting our rivers and they fell into putrid disrepair.

What was the cause?
Huge new urban populations were gushing sewage and industrial waste into them. In 19th-century Newcastle, the Tyne was teeming with salmon – workers had clauses in their contracts to ensure their bosses didn’t make them eat it every day. But by the 1950s the salmon were gone. In 1957 the Natural History Museum declared the Thames in London “biologically dead”, meaning it was too polluted to sustain life.

Is it still dead?
Happily, no. Most rivers have lost their industrial purpose, so cities have been busy cleaning them up. The Thames is now cleaner than it has been in 150 years, and is home to seals, porpoises, even the odd whale. It’s a big opportunity. “From Chicago to provincial China,” says Simon Kuper in the FT, “soot-covered riverside warehouses have been turned into hipster restaurants and prime waterfront apartments.”

Why is this significant?
As Kuper puts it, cities are “on a post-Covid push to reclaim the streets”, which includes booting high-emission cars and lorries off them. To do that, we’ll have to shift more and more traffic off the roads and on to rivers and canals. Now is the perfect time. The coming generation of electric ferries and barges can cleanly and quietly shift cargo (and commuters) in huge quantities. The newest Thames freight barges can carry 1,750 tons of goods, enough to replace 44 big trucks each. They may not be electric, but they pollute less than vans and they’re quieter. Imagine London without lorries loudly guffing out smog and Amazon delivery vans double-parked on every corner. And while ferries can be a bit slow, so is being stuck in traffic on the Embankment.

Why isn’t it happening already?
In some places it is. In Amsterdam, for example, the delivery firm DHL uses floating distribution centres to transport packages along canals to a point as near their destination as possible. Couriers on electric bikes carry them the final mile. In 2007 Sainsbury’s tried using barges rather than lorries to move groceries into the heart of London. The company reckoned it could cut out 350,000km of road travel every year, but had to stop after getting snarled up in red tape. This would be an easy fix if city leaders decided to make it a priority. Rivers are the reason cities are where they are. We just forgot about them.

💧Egyptians have always loved a journey by water. Cleopatra travelled to seduce Mark Antony in a luxurious two-storey pleasure barge that Herodotus described as being more like a floating villa. This was the same barge in which Julius Caesar had previously taken her up the Nile.

💧 The politics of canals and rivers that cross borders can get a bit choppy: whoever’s upstream gets to dictate terms to their neighbours downriver. That’s because they decide what state the water will be in by the time it arrives, if it arrives at all. Ethiopia is involved in a spat with downstream Egypt over a dam the Ethiopians are building on the Nile. In China, 11 huge dykes bung up the Mekong before it flows out of the country and on to Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, all of which rely on it. During increasingly common periods of drought, the Chinese can hold back more than 12 trillion gallons of water.

💧 One downside of using waterways for business is that it leaves you at the whim of nature. If it doesn’t rain enough in Germany, for example, the Rhine gets too low for the really big boats to navigate. That makes it more expensive to shift all kinds of essential stuff, from grain to heating oil. Climate change means that’s happening more and more.