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A floating market on one of Thailand's waterways Damnoensaduak97.jpg
A floating market on one of Thailand's waterways

A waterway is any navigable body of water. Broad distinctions are useful to avoid ambiguity, and disambiguation will be of varying importance depending on the nuance of the equivalent word in other languages. A first distinction is necessary between maritime shipping routes and waterways used by inland water craft. Maritime shipping routes cross oceans and seas, and some lakes, where navigability is assumed, and no engineering is required, except to provide the draft for deep-sea shipping to approach seaports (channels), or to provide a short cut across an isthmus; this is the function of ship canals. Dredged channels in the sea are not usually described as waterways. There is an exception to this initial distinction, essentially for legal purposes, see under international waters.


Where seaports are located inland, they are approached through a waterway that could be termed "inland" but in practice is generally referred to as a "maritime waterway" (examples Seine Maritime, Loire Maritime, Seeschiffahrtsstraße Elbe). The term "inland waterway" refers to navigable rivers and canals designed to be used by inland waterway craft only, implicitly of much smaller dimensions than seagoing ships.

In order for a waterway to be navigable, it must meet several criteria:

Vessels using waterways vary from small animal-drawn barges to immense ocean tankers and ocean liners, such as cruise ships.


Waterways have been an important part of human activity since prehistoric times and navigability has allowed watercraft and canals to pass through every body of water. The Grand Canal (China), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the oldest known waterway system in the world, is considered to be one of the world's largest and most extensive project of engineering.[ citation needed ]

Example of classification of inland waterways

Classification of European inland waterways, adapted from UNECE Map of European Inland Waterways, 4th ed., 2010 Classification Waterways UNECE.jpg
Classification of European inland waterways, adapted from UNECE Map of European Inland Waterways, 4th ed., 2010

The European Conference of Ministers of Transport established in 1953 a classification of waterways that was later expanded to take into account the development of push-towing. Europe is a continent with a great variety of waterway characteristics, which makes this classification valuable to appreciate the different classes in waterway. There is also a remarkable variety of waterway characteristics in many countries of Asia, but there has not been any equivalent international drive for uniformity. This classification is provided by the UN Economic Commission for Europe, Inland Transport Committee, Working Party on Inland Water Transport. A low resolution version of that map is shown here.

Major waterways

The European waterway network, differentiating waterways by Class (I to VII) UNECE-European-waterways-2012.jpg
The European waterway network, differentiating waterways by Class (I to VII)

See also

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Canal Man-made channel for water

Canals are waterway channels, or artificial waterways, for water conveyance, or for servicing water transport vehicles. They carry free surface flow under atmospheric pressure, and can be thought of as artificial rivers.

St. Lawrence Seaway Locks & canals in the USA and Canada

The St. Lawrence Seaway is a system of locks, canals, and channels in Canada and the United States that permits oceangoing vessels to travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes of North America, as far inland as Duluth, Minnesota, at the western end of Lake Superior. The seaway is named for the St. Lawrence River, which flows from Lake Ontario to the Atlantic Ocean. Legally, the seaway extends from Montreal, Quebec, to Lake Erie, and includes the Welland Canal.

Ship Large buoyant watercraft

A ship is a large watercraft that travels the world's oceans and other sufficiently deep waterways, carrying goods or passengers, or in support of specialized missions, such as defense, research, and fishing. Ships are generally distinguished from boats, based on size, shape, load capacity, and purpose. In the Age of Sail a "ship" was a sailing vessel defined by its sail plan of at least three square rigged masts and a full bowsprit.

Maritime transport The transport of people or goods via waterways

Maritime transport and fluvial transport, or more generally waterborne transport, is the transport of people (passengers) or goods (cargo) via waterways. Freight transport by sea has been widely used throughout recorded history. The advent of aviation has diminished the importance of sea travel for passengers, though it is still popular for short trips and pleasure cruises. Transport by water is cheaper than transport by air, despite fluctuating exchange rates and a fee placed on top of freighting charges for carrier companies known as the currency adjustment factor. Maritime transport accounts for roughly 80% of international trade, according to UNCTAD in 2020.

Great Lakes Waterway System of channels and canals in the Great Lakes

The Great Lakes Waterway (GLW) is a system of natural channels and artificial canals which enable navigation between the North American Great Lakes. Though all of the lakes are naturally connected as a chain, water travel between the lakes was impeded for centuries by obstacles such as Niagara Falls and the rapids of the St. Marys River.

Port Maritime facility where ships may dock to load and discharge passengers and cargo

A port is a maritime facility comprising one or more wharves or loading areas, where ships load and discharge cargo and passengers. Although usually situated on a sea coast or estuary, ports can also be found far inland, such as Hamburg, Manchester and Duluth; these access the sea via rivers or canals. Because of their roles as ports of entry for immigrants as well as soldiers in wartime, many port cities have experienced dramatic multi-ethnic and multicultural changes throughout their respective histories.

Havel River in Germany

The Havel is a river in northeastern Germany, flowing through the states of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Brandenburg, Berlin and Saxony-Anhalt. It is a right tributary of the Elbe and 325 kilometres (202 mi) long. However, the direct distance from its source to its mouth is only 94 kilometres (58 mi). For much of its length, the Havel is navigable; it provides an important link in the waterway connections between the east and west of Germany, as well as beyond.

Ship canal A canal intended to accommodate ships used on the oceans, seas, or lakes.

A ship canal is a canal especially intended to accommodate ships used on the oceans, seas, or lakes to which it is connected.

Watercraft Vehicles that are intended for locomotion on or in the water

Watercraft, also known as water vessels or waterborne vessels, are vehicles used in and on water, including boats, ships, hovercraft, and submarines. Watercraft usually have a propulsive capability and hence are distinct from a simple device that merely floats, such as a log raft.

A cargo ship or freighter is a merchant ship that carries cargo, goods, and materials from one port to another. Thousands of cargo carriers ply the world's seas and oceans each year, handling the bulk of international trade. Cargo ships are usually specially designed for the task, often being equipped with cranes and other mechanisms to load and unload, and come in all sizes. Today, they are almost always built of welded steel, and with some exceptions generally have a life expectancy of 25 to 30 years before being scrapped.

Riverboat Watercraft designed for inland navigation

A riverboat is a watercraft designed for inland navigation on lakes, rivers, and artificial waterways. They are generally equipped and outfitted as work boats in one of the carrying trades, for freight or people transport, including luxury units constructed for entertainment enterprises, such as lake or harbour tour boats. As larger water craft, virtually all riverboats are especially designed and constructed, or alternatively, constructed with special-purpose features that optimize them as riverine or lake service craft, for instance, dredgers, survey boats, fisheries management craft, fireboats and law enforcement patrol craft.

Merchant ship Civilian boat or ship that transports cargo or carries passengers for hire

A merchant ship, merchant vessel, trading vessel, or merchantman is a watercraft that transports cargo or carries passengers for hire. This is in contrast to pleasure craft, which are used for personal recreation, and naval ships, which are used for military purposes.

Short-sea shipping Movement of cargo and passengers by sea along a coast, without crossing an ocean

The modern terms short-sea shipping, marine highway, and motorways of the sea, and the more historical terms coastal trade, coastal shipping, coasting trade, and coastwise trade, all encompass the movement of cargo and passengers mainly by sea along a coast, without crossing an ocean.

Navigability Capacity of a body of water to allow the passage of vessels at a given time

A body of water, such as a river, canal or lake, is navigable if it is deep, wide and calm enough for a water vessel to pass safely. Such a navigable water is called a waterway, and is preferably with few obstructions against direct traverse that needed avoiding, such as rocks, reefs or trees. Bridges built over waterways must have sufficient clearance. High flow speed may make a channel unnavigable due to risk of ship collisions. Waters may be unnavigable because of ice, particularly in winter or high-latitude regions. Navigability also depends on context: a small river may be navigable by smaller craft such as a motorboat or a kayak, but unnavigable by a larger freighter or cruise ship. Shallow rivers may be made navigable by the installation of locks that regulate flow and increase upstream water level, or by dredging that deepens parts of the stream bed.

A sea lane, sea road or shipping lane is a regularly used navigable route for large water vessels (ships) on wide waterways such as oceans and large lakes, and is preferably safe, direct and economic. In the Age of Sail, they were not only determined by the distribution of land masses but also the prevailing winds, whose discovery was crucial for the success of long maritime voyages. Sea lanes are very important for seaborne trade.

A freight rate is a price at which a certain cargo is delivered from one point to another. The price depends on the form of the cargo, the mode of transport, the weight of the cargo, and the distance to the delivery destination. Many shipping services, especially air carriers, use dimensional weight for calculating the price, which takes into account both weight and volume of the cargo.

Volga–Baltic Waterway Series of canals and rivers in Russia

The Volga–Baltic Waterway, formerly known as the Mariinsk Canal System, is a series of canals and rivers in Russia which link the Volga with the Baltic Sea via the Neva. Like the Volga–Don Canal, it connects the biggest lake on Earth, the Caspian Sea, to the World Ocean. Its overall length between Cherepovets and Lake Onega is 368 kilometres (229 mi).

The Nicaraguan Ecocanal was a proposed project in Nicaragua to build a shallow-draft waterway connecting the inland Lake Nicaragua with the Caribbean Sea via the San Juan River in the south of the country. The main aim of the waterway was to provide a maritime alternative to the lengthy overland journeys that are presently required to import and export containerised cargoes through the ports of Puerto Cortes in Honduras and Puerto Limon in Costa Rica.

Draft (hull) Vertical distance between the waterline and the bottom of the hull (keel)

The draft or draught of a ship's hull is the vertical distance between the waterline and the bottom of the hull (keel). Draft determines the minimum depth of water a ship or boat can safely navigate.

Water transport in India' has played a significant role in the country's overall economy and is indispensable to foreign trade. India is endowed with an extensive network of waterways in the form of rivers, canals, backwaters, creeks and a long coastline accessible through the seas and oceans. It has the largest carrying capacity of any form of transport and is most suitable for carrying bulky goods over long distances. It is one of the most cheap modes of transport in India, as it takes advantage of natural track and does not require huge capital investment in construction and maintenance except in the case of canals. Its fuel efficiency contributes to lower operating costs and reduced environmental impact due to carbon. India has 14500 km of inland waterways. Out of which only 5685 km are navigable by mechanized vessels.