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Unlocking Pakistan’s Inland Waterway Potential

Prime Minister’s letter from Jail to the President

By Qamar Bashir

Former Press Secretary to the President | Former Press Minister to the Embassy of Pakistan to FranceFormer MD, SRBC

Pakistan possesses a vast potential for developing a robust ferry or ship liner service, utilizing its extensive river system, coastline, and canal network. With a coastline spanning approximately 2,000 kilometers and five major rivers, including the Indus, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, and Sutlej, Pakistan boasts a natural transportation network capable of efficiently and sustainably moving people and goods.

Recognizing this potential, the World Bank, in March 2022, emphasized the need for establishing a federal-level Inland Waterway Authority (IWA) in Pakistan aimed to standardize inland waterways transportation (IWT) through legislative measures.

It’s noteworthy that the World Bank has been advising Pakistan on the development of its inland waterways since 1961. An earlier confidential report dated November 8, 1961, revealed the World Bank’s keen interest in enhancing Pakistan’s inland water transport system, offering financial assistance of around $2 million for the initial phase of improvements.

Despite decades of recommendations and discussions, Pakistan has yet to harness the highly promising economic benefits of maritime and inland waterway transportation. This delay is attributed to a combination of factors, including shifting priorities, political challenges, and the influence of vested interests in various sectors of the economy.

In 2017, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif welcomed a proposal to establish a ferry service between Karachi, Gwadar, and Muscat, emphasizing its potential to provide an affordable alternative mode of transportation for the people regularly traveling these routes. The Ministry of Maritime Affairs subsequently proposed the creation of a ferry service, linking Karachi, Port Qasim, and Gwadar with ports in Iran, Iraq, Oman, and the UAE. The proposal also included plans for the establishment of ferry terminals and related operational facilities.

In parallel, the Planning Commission developed Pakistan’s first comprehensive transportation policy, which incorporated inland waterway development and maritime transportation. The Inland Waterway Transport National Transport Policy of Pakistan 2018 outlined the strategic direction for inland waterway transport, promoting it as a cost-effective and environmentally friendly mode of transportation. The policy envisioned the integration of inland waterways into an intermodal transportation system, emphasizing the use of navigable waterways along the Indus River for both freight and passenger transportation.

Moreover, the policy highlighted the importance of developing an inland waterway transport master plan to explore additional navigable rivers and canals while emphasizing effective riverine water management planning.

Simultaneously, the policy recognized the significance of Pakistan’s maritime sector, considering it a potential engine of economic growth through support for international trade and regional transit. It proposed the development of international ports and their integration into global supply chains, with a focus on efficient, private sector-led terminal operations.

Fast forward to 2023, Pakistan’s President, Dr. Arif Alvi, reiterated the importance of sea transportation, both for the movement of goods and the development of ports, resorts, and coastal tourism. He emphasized the need for Pakistan to adhere to international standards in developing its coastal areas and harness its blue economy.

While Pakistan has not yet established a federal-level Inland Waterway Authority, the Punjab government has taken a positive step by establishing the Inland Waterway Development Company. This company aims to develop a 200-kilometer stretch of the Northern Indus as a pilot project to showcase the potential of waterborne transportation. This initiative demonstrates the feasibility of revitalizing the vast network of waterways from Karachi to the North, spanning the entire country.

The Punjab government’s survey of the Indus River Channel, funded by private sector entrepreneurs, evaluates the feasibility of phase-wise development, initially focusing on transporting goods and passengers between Daudkhel and Attock. The project envisions expanding throughout Punjab and eventually connecting with waterways in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh. The ultimate goal is to create a comprehensive national inland water transport plan, generating significant financial and social benefits by creating employment opportunities and diversifying transportation avenues.

To fully capitalize on this potential, Pakistan must overcome various challenges, with political will being the foremost requirement. Addressing issues related to infrastructure, investment, and security concerns, such as potential misuse for anti-national activities, is critical. Other countries have successfully managed similar security challenges and harnessed the economic and environmental advantages of waterborne transportation.

Investing in a ferry or ship liner service in Pakistan can lead to a wide range of benefits, including boosting tourism, job creation, increased revenue, reduced transportation costs, and the development of essential infrastructure.

It’s essential for Pakistan to redefine its security priorities and place economic and financial security at the forefront. By doing so, Pakistan can fully leverage waterborne transportation to transport goods, connect remote regions with urban centers, and promote sustainable and efficient transportation while ensuring the economic prosperity of its citizens.

In conclusion, Pakistan stands at a pivotal moment where it can tap into the immense potential of its waterways to reshape its economy and secure its future. Embracing waterborne transportation is not just a transportation alternative; it’s a path to economic prosperity, job creation, and a sustainable future for the nation.

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