Index > Briefing
Wednesday, April 07, 2021
An undervalued Resource: Yangtze Golden Waterway and River Shipping
Chan Kung

Due to the geographical environment, most of the rivers in China flow from west to east, while the north-south traffic requires the use of high-speed railways, highways, and other land transportation. From the perspective of the geographical environment, "north-south railway, east-west riverway" is the transportation framework that best fits China's geographical environment. This framework is a more efficient transportation network model that can greatly save the existing transportation construction costs, improve the transportation efficiency, and reduce the freight cost.

The Yangtze River, the third-longest river in the world, is touted as the "golden waterway" that traverses China from east to west, which also links the northern and southern parts of the country. Thanks to long-term improvements, the Yangtze River has become the world's busiest and largest navigable river in terms of traffic volume, and has ranked first in the world in terms of inland river freight volume for 15 consecutive years. Although the total volume of shipping along the Yangtze River is considerably huge, there is still a problem of imbalance in its utilization, and it is far from playing its due role in connecting the east and west, as well as linking the upper, middle, and lower reaches.

Automatic Identification System (AIS) is a new navigation aid system that is applied to the maritime safety and communication between ship and shore, as well as among the ships. The signals from AIS can be used to observe the conditions of river navigation. Based on AIS signals, ANBOUND observed that the shipping flow of the Yangtze River is divided into three sections, i.e., Shanghai-Wuhan section, Yichang-Yueyang section, and Yibin-Chongqing section. Yet, this does not effectively connect the upper, middle, and lower reaches of China from east to west.

Figure: The utilization of the golden waterway as shown by AIS signal

Source: Internet

In addition to the obvious segmentation of the golden waterway, the density indicator shown by the AIS signals can also correspond to the shipping flow. Combined with relevant information, it is shown that the Yangtze Estuary Deepwater Channel is "overloaded and saturated". At present, the Yangtze Estuary Deepwater Channel is the only channel for large vessels to enter and leave the Yangtze River. Statistics show that the Yangtze Estuary has more than 50% of the freight traffic in the main stream of the Yangtze River. The 12.5 meter deep water channel from Nanjing to the Yangtze Estuary is basically saturated, with high navigable pressures. In contrast, the signals of Nanjing and Wuhan sections are much sparse, indicating most sections of the Yangtze River are underutilized.

According to the analysis reports in recent years, this obvious gap is not only affected by the large span of the Yangtze River waterway, the difficulty of regional coordination, the balance of their respective interests, and other factors, but also due to the objective existence of the Yangtze River bridges, the Jingjiang waterway, the Three Gorges Dam and other blockages.

In 1931, the U.S. 10,000-ton crude oil tanker California, once sailed directly from the Yangtze Estuary to Wuhan. However, since the construction of the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge in the 1960s, with a clearance height of only 24 meters, large ships have been blocked in the downstream. When the water level is high in some seasons, only 3,000-ton ships can pass through the bridge, and this certainly excludes 10,000-ton ships, thus limiting the role of navigation in the upper reaches of the river. Since then, the clearance heights of the later built Yangtze River bridges, such as those of Wuhu, Tongling, and Anqing, were built based on the clearance height of the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge. As a result, the 213 kilometer deep water channel between Nanjing and Tongling, which can be used to navigate 10,000-ton ships, is underutilized. As 30,000-50,000-ton ships are not restricted by the bridge's clearance height, these ships can reach the ports in the lower stream of Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge directly. Since the 1980s, the country has invested more than RMB 1 billion to build dozens of 5000-ton foreign trade terminals and container terminals in ports such as Wuhu, Anqing, Jiujiang, Huangshi, Wuhan, Chenglingji, and Chongqing, but few large foreign ships berth at these ports.

The Jingjiang section of the Yangtze River is too shallow for large ships to pass through. In order to realize the direct transport of 10,000-ton ships from Chongqing to Shanghai and the river-sea coordinated transportation, the water depth of the entire waterway must be no less than 6 meters, but the water depth of the 626-kilometer Jingjiang section is about 3.5 meters deep, which has become a section restricted the navigation of the Yangtze River. Therefore, the coordinated transportation of goods between the river and the sea needs to be reloaded to the boat in Yichang and then reloaded to the ship in Chenglingji. On March 26 this year, the improvement project of the Wuhan-Anqing section of the Yangtze River was completed and put into trial operation, which allowed 10,000-ton ships with a draught of 6 meters to reach Wuhan all year round. However, for the Jingjiang section, despite the project is to raise the water depth of the Yichang-Wuhan section to 4.5 meters to breakthrough shipping restrictions in the middle reaches of the Yangtze River, it will only be able to accommodate the passage of 5,000-ton ships.

Since its completion, the Three Gorges Dam has become the main bottleneck in the golden waterway. After the completion of the Three Gorges Dam, the development of shipping on the Sichuan River has been in a supersaturated state. The Three Gorges Ship Locks, which were not expected to be saturated until 2030, reached saturation in 2011, 19 years ahead of schedule, reaching the upper limit of its designed capacity. The Three Gorges Ship Locks operate at full capacity and high efficiency for days beyond its design all year round. However, there are still a large number of ships queue up to pass the lock every day, and the long queues at the gate have become the norm.

The current east-west traffic along the Yangtze River is indeed unsatisfactory, and it mainly relies on railway and highway transport. This "golden waterway" is therefore seriously underutilized, and its transportation potential is left idle and wasted. It is worth noting that China is also building east-west high-speed railways and highways along the river, which are in line with the direction of the waterway development. In terms of transportation time and efficiency, water transportation plays an important role in the transportation system, which has many advantages such as less land occupation, low cost, less energy consumption, large transport capacity, and high efficiency. It is a great mistake to ignore, or even give up the use of the east-west waterway, which has great potentials in the development in the east and west economic regions; to do so is a huge waste of natural resources.

From the current AIS signals of the Yangtze River and looking at the whole basin, "the golden waterway" does not actually exist. It should be pointed out that the AIS signal can only cover the ships above 300 tons, so the situation indicated by the AIS signal may not reflect the whole situation of the shipping of the Yangtze River, but it can be seen that the existing Yangtze River waterway is unable to undertake the traffic and logistics tasks that the "golden waterway" should have. Therefore, the way to implement the CPC Central Committee's strategic vision of the Yangtze River Economic Belt in the future and realize the coverage of China's efficient logistics system remains a great challenge to the country.

Final analysis conclusion:

The characteristics of China's geographical environment show that the transportation pattern of the "north-south railway, east-west riverway" is relatively favorable for the country in terms of transportation. However, the AIS signal indicates a very unsatisfactory utilization of the Yangtze River, which is divided into three sections, has failed to play the role of the "Yangtze Golden Waterway". In the future, if the central government's strategic vision of the Yangtze River Economic Belt is to be implemented, vigorous efforts are needed to boost the Yangtze River shipping.


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