Not many of us know that the British introduced steam powered vessels in 1823 in the Indus River. These vessels were operated between Kotri to Sukkur and Sukkur to Kalabagh. Besides, sail boats were provided to extend the carrier service above Kalabagh to Attock for cargoes destined for Peshawar.
However, these flotillas were discontinued in 1871 with the introduction of Railway service in the region and never introduced again. Several ferries were also operated in those times to help people cross rivers in the absence of bridges and provide them access to markets, health centres and so on. Around 143 years down the road, there are still very few bridges but no ferries to transport people safely. Where there are bridges, they are mostly old and in a bad shape.
Against this backdrop, there is an interesting development which has caught attention of the people recently. The Punjab government has announced to reintroduce a similar service in the Indus River quite soon. Surveys are underway to clear the stretch between Attock and Daudkhel as a pilot route.
The government is going quite fast and has already set up a committee mandated with the task to explore the possibilities of having an Inland Waterways Transport (IWT) in the province. The committee has been assigned the tasks to a) identify inland waterways within the territorial limits of Punjab for introducing waterways transport for tourism, passenger and cargo services etc b) recommend the next steps along with timelines to run a pilot project on the most suitable and feasible routes and c) recommend a broader strategy to make IWT a viable means of communication and transport in collaboration with the private sector.
The questions at the moment are that whether the river and canal systems of the country are okay for navigation and is there enough water in canals? How viable is to introduce IWT in the presence of road and rail infrastructure and how can the project team take care of bridges and barrages which are an obstruction in the movement of vessels?
There is tremendous potential for IWT as it is highly cost-effective, says Naeem Sarfaraz, a retired naval officer who is also on the committee. Citing a study of the US Department of Transport, he says one liter of fuel helps transport one tonne of freight to a distance of 21 km by road, 72 km by train and 182 km by IWT. The figures can be different depending on the efficiency of the vehicle, but it is confirmed that the cost this way is a fraction of that spent on sending goods by road.
"One can imagine how much imported fuel can be saved this way," he adds.
Naeem brushes aside the apprehensions that the country’s rivers and irrigation canals are not suitable for this purpose and that the waves created by movement of ships/craft will harm the earthern structures. "These are fears of the people who have never stepped on a ship. I have decades of experience in this field and can safely say that our waterways are perfect for this purpose."
On the pilot project between Attock and Daudkhel, Naeem says they want to demonstrate it to the people how feasible this mode of transport is. He says around 22 studies have been carried out since Pakistan’s inception on the prospects of IWT from Karachi to upcountry but nothing concrete could be done mainly due to the enormous scale of the project. "So we decided to start with small projects and then keep on expanding with time."
Experts believe this particular route (Attock-Daudkhel) is free of obstructions and all that is needed is the permission from the government to open it up for IWT. Everything from crafts and barges to jetties can be manufactured in the country and the private sector will be more than willing to invest. If things go as planned, a whole shipping industry will be developed in the country and thousands of jobs will be created within no time, says Naeem.
But before clearing the turf, the government has to do some homework. This includes security clearance and guarding the area, legislation on IWT, setting up of an authority/company to regulate the system and frame relevant laws, says Kamran Lashari who is advising the government and looking after the tourism aspect as well. In case the Punjab government wants to extend the route into Sindh it will need approval from the government of the province as well as the Inter-Provincial Coordination Committee (IPCC).
He tells TNS there is a great potential for tourism as people love to enjoy boat rides provided they feel secure. A pilot project in this respect will hopefully be launched at the Lahore Canal between Thokar Niaz Beg bridge and the Punjab University bridge.
About the use of canals, Naeem says there are both seasonal and perennial canals and the latter are suitable for having water for most of the year. These canals close for just one month and this period can be used for maintenance work as happens in Europe and the US. Shipping of goods through canals can be suspended during this period. He says the only hurdle at canals is there are bridges which have to be razed or remodeled to make way for vessels.
Enumerating other benefits of this system, he says it is much safer as there are hardly any accidents and people do not die due to collisions. The water speed is normally between 2 to 3 kilometres per mile which is very much manageable. Deaths, if they occur, are due to drowning and mostly in those places where the banks are at a long distance from the vessels, he adds.
Naeem says Kalabagh, which is rich in iron ore, is an ideal location to set up a steel mill. But this project was shelved as it costs too much to transport imported coal (basic fuel) from Karachi sea port to Kalabagh. The cost of moving coal from Australia to Karachi is almost the same as spent on moving it from Karachi to Kalabagh. If this coal can be shipped via IWT, the Kalabagh Steel Mill will become highly feasible. The pilot project is financially viable as there are several cement and fertilizer factories between Attock and Daudkhel.
Yawar Zaman, Minister for Irrigation Punjab, tells TNS the government will not carry out the plan without carrying out comprehensive surveys and studies through qualified consultants. If there are apprehensions, it is the duty of the government to verify whether they are genuine or baseless. He says no doubt the private sector will have a major role in the scheme but the government will be there to maintain law and order and provide security to the people and the goods moving through waters. The best part is that things are moving fast and they hope launch of IWT is a matter of days, he concludes.