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! Nevertheless, the Belgian shippers have their worries as well…


Until right before the credit crisis, the IWT sector was still increasing and receiving good prices for their services. The growing economy and the opening of the internal borders in Eastern Europe promised all the best for the future of IWT, which led to an increase in investments. In the wave of optimism, new, larger vessels were ordered and added to the already impressive fleet, putting an upward pressure on the price.

IWT TonKm_year

Five years later, the situation looks rather different. Since the crisis hit in 2008, shippers needed to work at prices way below their costs. The situation went downhill fast, until the Belgian shippers rose against this course of events in April 2013 and demanded action of the government. Their trade union FBB called out for better prices, a better position vis-à-vis their Dutch colleagues (so-called ‘deloyal competition’) and an increased government protection overall. After a short strike, their demands were unanimously met. A historic achievement, according to the chairman of the FBB. It was the most salient form of protest since a nine week strike in 1975, and delivered better and faster results.

IWT strike

Picture: www.binnenvaartfotografie.be


Although the Inland Waterways Transport sector is indeed growing in Belgium, we still have a long way to go. The Netherlands use their waterway network more efficiently than Belgium, employing 5226 freight ships that perform 40.3 million ton-kilometers. The Belgians’ 1795 vessels only achieve a mere 8.2 million TonKm. Germany from their part are using their 2925 ships very efficiently, cumulating up to 62.3 million TonKm in the largest network of Europe (7565km). France is one of the worst pupils of the IWT class, collecting only 9.5 million TonKm with 1553 vessels.


Number of freight ships

Navigable   waterways for transport (in 2010)

Million ton-kilometers (in 2010)

share of IWT   vs. other modes of transport




















The   Netherlands






























 When we look over Europe’s horizon, the picture becomes clearer. Europe has still a lot to learn from China and the USA, while Russia does not seem interested in IWT at all. The Americans have a waterway network that is comparable to the European network in size, but perform three times as much in ton-kilometers! China is the unmatched champion, using its enormous web of rivers 3.5 times more efficiently than the Americans. When we take a look to the relative numbers of IWT transport in relation to other modes of transport, Russia is leaping behind again (1,14% IWT). Europe is not doing much better, with 3,85% IWT, while the Americans are using IWT for 7.45% of their transport needs. In China, almost 15% of transport missions are done over the Inland Waterways.


We at 32cup are absolutely supporting the Inland Waterways Transport sector. We believe that further stimulation of IWT is one of the best ways to improve the Belgian road mobility, and provide a safer, cheaper and more sustainable mode of transport for the 21st Century. We are glad the Belgian government has acknowledged the value of IWT, and chose to further develop its potential. Who knows, maybe one day 32cup will move to a ship as well!?

 IWT ship 32cup


  • 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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