The Greek historian Herodotus observed during his visit to the country in the fifth century BC that ‘Egypt is the gift of the river Nile’. Throughout history, the Nile has nourished Egypt by providing water for irrigation and fertilising the Nile valley and delta. It has also been a line of communication and transportation, for civil and military purposes. Without the river, the development of Egyptian civilisation would not have been possible.

River transport has always played a key role in sustaining the local economy. Before the development of the national highway network, raw materials for industrial production, heavy goods and agricultural produce were mostly transported on the Nile. Today, the bulk of these goods and materials are carried by road. According to Karim Abu El-Khair, chairman of Egypt?s River Transportation Authority (RTA), the time has come to reverse this trend.

‘Our aim is to increase the share of goods transported on the Nile from 0.7 per cent of the total to 4 per cent by 2020 and to 8 per cent beyond that,’ he says. Today, the total volume of goods and materials that are transported domestically stands at about 350 million tonnes a year, a figure that is set to rise by up to 70 per cent until 2020. River transport is charged with playing an increasingly important role in handling these volumes and the RTA, set up in the 1950s and operating under its current name since 1979, is the body in charge of developing the strategy to meet these targets.

‘The RTA is responsible for everything that is related to the River Nile bar protection, which is the responsibility of the Irrigation & Water Resources Ministry,’ says El-Khair. ‘We provide the infrastructure to ensure safe transportation on the river, we give licences to any motorised boat of any size and we are responsible for movements on the river.’

The rationale for drawing up a new river transport strategy is clear. ‘River transportation has a lot of advantages,’ says El-Khair. Among the greatest benefits, he says, is that it tends to be more cost-effective and environmentally friendly than road transport. By shifting cargo on to the river, road traffic and congestion will be reduced or at least increase more slowly. In addition, river transport allows the movement of greater cargo volumes: one standard barge can carry about 900 tonnes of cargo, equivalent to about 30 trucks.

The 160-kilometre Suez Canal, which links the Red Sea with the Mediterranean, may be of more strategic importance but the Nile, at 1,750 kilometres, is Egypt?s longest navigable waterway. The river is divided into four main sections: the Cairo-Damietta waterway (240 kilometres); the Cairo-Alexandria waterway (200 kilometres); the Cairo-Aswan waterway, the longest section at almost 1,000 kilometres; and the 350-kilometre stretch linking Aswan with Wadi Halfa, in northern Sudan.

As part of its plan to increase traffic on the Nile, the RTA has embarked on a number of projects. It is working on the upgrade and rehabilitation of existing waterways. This includes dredging works to enable bigger barges and vessels to pass through, and the installation of navigation infrastructure such as buoys, beacons and lights along the waterways. New navigation aids are also to be installed along the river to allow for night operations.

A hydrographic survey of the Cairo-Aswan stretch, measuring the depth of the riverbed, has already been completed in partnership with Floatex of the Netherlands. The outcome of the hydrographic survey, which will also cover the other waterways, will provide the basis for a detailed navigation map of the Nile, whose changing depth, water levels and sedimentation poses a challenge in its own right.

In addition, the RTA is developing plans aimed at increasing traffic flows from Port Said and Port Suez to Cairo, says El-Khair. To this end, it plans to upgrade the existing, 128-kilometre Ismailia canal, which joins the Suez Canal at the city of Ismailia, to enable larger vessels to reach the Nile. Studies are under way on how to co-ordinate traffic between the Ismailia and Suez canals.

The case for increasing cargo traffic via the Nile and its related waterways is convincing. More industries are being established in Port Said, Port Suez, Damietta, Alexandria and other areas that feature new free or industrial zones. The flow of goods and materials between these industrial hubs and Cairo, which has an estimated population of 20 million and rising, will inevitably increase in the years to come. Directing more of this traffic on to the Nile and its waterways seems a sensible solution to growing cargo volumes.

The government will finance and maintain essential infrastructure such as locks, bridges, bank protection and navigation aids, says El-Khair. But the rising traffic volumes will also require the construction of new ports and the expansion of existing ones. As in other sectors of the economy, the new government also hopes to attract private and foreign direct investment into the transport sector. ‘We want the private sector to come in,’ says El-Khair. ‘We plan to offer projects based on PPP [private-public-partnership] models.’

The first projects are already being offered on a BOT basis. The government hopes to bring in private investors to promote and operate two Nile ports ? El-Tebbine el-Nahri, between Cairo and Aswan, and Qena, north of the Aswan high dam lake ? under 20-year concessions. The ports will be used for tourism and cargo activities. Port developments may also be offered at other locations if private investors are interested, says El-Khair. In addition, the RTA hopes to attract transport companies and shipbuilders. With so much potential activity being planned, thereis no doubt that the Nile will continue to be a lifeline for the country?s economy.