What if we told you that there is a way that we can transport your goods to anywhere in Europe, 5 times as cheap as by truck, 5 times as eco-friendly, far more safe and without being stuck in traffic? It’s simple the IWT system, or ‘Inland Waterways Transport’. Belgium has quite the history in IWT, and holds a shipload of opportunities for the future! Let’s take a look at the possibilities in this first part of our IWT review.

IWT Antwerp


The history of the IWT in the Low Countries is as old as the countries themselves. Before the integration of paved roads and the invention of cars to use them, transport over long distances was only possible over water. That is why the Low Countries have made a priority of the adjustment of its many rivers for centuries, thus developing an enormous network of canals. Parallel with the development of the Port of Antwerp, it was again Napoleon and the Dutch King William I who were the icebreakers. Both of them stressed the importance of Inland Waterways Transport, believing that it could mean a big incentive for the economy of Belgium and the Netherlands. And boy, were they right!


Ships are divided into five classes, according to size. The shippers are floating entrepreneurs who are usually in the IWT business for generations. Consequently, these family businesses have produced a very experienced fleet, with on average 25 years of shipping experience.

The IWT business has been thriving thanks to the new technologies of the Information Age. New communication technology like the “River Information Services” has facilitated the passage near locks greatly, while the progress in construction technology allowed the vessels to increase their capacity and thus their efficiency in a safe way. Also, thanks to the possibilities of the internet, the shippers’ children on the ship can now receive an education from a distance, instead of being stuck in boarding school.

IWT Canal

Picture from www.binnenvaartfotografie.be.


The Belgian waterways are directly connected to the Netherlands, France, Germany, Luxemburg and even Austria. While the Rhine and the Danube rivers are unmistakably the backbone of the European waterway network, the Flemish network are not to be underestimated as the crossroads of the European trade routes. Flanders has one of the most dense IWT networks in the world, with more than 1000km of routes used by almost 1800 freight ships. But the Flemish network has still a large reserve capacity, allowing the sector to grow in the future. Further development of IWT can largely improve the mobility on the congested Belgian road network.

On average, four out of five Flemish companies are within a 10km reach of a waterway. When combining IWT with Shortsea Shipping (shipping along coast lines), goods can be transported from these Belgian companies to almost anywhere in Europe, from the Italian Po valley over the Swedish lake area, to the British estuary or the Iberian Peninsula. Not to mention the immense forwarding potential of the Port of Antwerp!

IWT ship


If you’re not convinced of the qualities of IWT yet, these are the benefits in a nutshell:

  • IWT is… eco-friendly: IWT is far more fuel efficient than other modes of transport. With an input of 5 liters of fuel, 1 MT of goods can go as far as 500km by IWT vessel, 333km by train, but only 100km by truck.
  • IWT is… sustainable: Infrastructural development of the waterways helps to prevent floods, and provides water reserves and the accompanying fauna and flora. Hydroelectric stations can be installed along rivers and canals.
  • IWT is… cheap: An average-sized ship can carry as much as 40 railway carriages or 60 trucks, and uses the infrastructure more efficiently (and thus cheaply) than the other methods. As far as the so-called ‘societal costs’ go (an EU costs calculation that relates to accidents, climate change, noise pollution, etc.), IWT scores far lower (5€/ 1000TonKm) than road transport (24.12€/ 1000TonKm) and railway (12.35€/ 1000TonKm).
  • IWT is… slow? No, it’s on time! IWT is said to be a slow mode of transport. When you take the transported quantities into account, it is clear that this is not entirely true. Furthermore, the timing of an Inland Water Transport is far more reliable than a truck transport.
  • IWT is… safe: there are only rarely accidents on the waterways. The shippers are very well trained and have to abide to very strict safety requirements.
  • IWT is… more than meets the eye: the waterways can be used for tourism, recreation and cultural and esthetic purposes as well!
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Sofie Nys Sofie Nys

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