PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil – Water transport is expected to gain new prominence in 2011.
“The Ministry of Transport has indicated that this is going to be the year of the waterway,” says Ático Scherer, the operational director of Navegação Aliança, a river transport company operating in the south of Brazil. “There are lots of expectations, because it seems that the federal government is going to become more involved in the water transport sector.”
President Dilma Rousseff is expected to receive a report in the next few days from the Ministry of Transport, prepared in conjunction with the National Department of Transportation Infrastructure (DNIT) and the National Water Transport Agency (ANTAQ).
The Ministry of Transport confirmed to Infosurhoy.com the importance of waterways and explained it is in constant contact with the Office of the President regarding the priorities of Brazil’s Growth Acceleration Program (PAC).
The next phase of the program, known as PAC 2, includes R$2.7 billion (US$1.62 billion) for the construction of seven waterways and 34 terminals.
José Renato Ribas Fialho of ANTAQ’s Inland Navigation Office, says the agency is preparing an extensive study of Brazil’s waterways, and that another one is being prepared by the Ministry of Transport.
The potential of Brazil’s nearly 48,000 km (29,825 miles) of navigable rivers and about 7,000 km (4,349 miles) of maritime coastline has yet to be tapped, according to specialists.
The result? A mere 13% of freight is shipped by boat, according to the National Transport Federation (CNT).
“When we began suggesting possible projects for the water transport sector as a part of PAC 2, we discovered how little was already in existence,” Fialho says. “If there had been more in place, we could have invested more. Yet all this time without investment led to a loss of acquired knowledge, personnel, companies, and projects.”
The ANTAQ and DNIT studies are expected to identify high-priority projects for the water transport sector, according to an article published by Valor Econômico newspaper on Feb. 23.
The initial focus will be on improving existing routes.
Water transport is underutilized
The only sector that has embraced water transport is Brazil’s oil and gas sector, after investments were made in terminals in several coastal states by the state-owned oil company Petrobras, which also maintains its fleet of ships, according to Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA).
An IPEA study points out that in order to transform rivers into navigable waterways, projects such as dredging and the charting of better routes must be carried out.
“Water transport is ideal for large volumes with low aggregated value, such as grains, minerals and fuels,” Fialho says. “With the evolution of the markets for these three products, it will be hard for our rail and road infrastructure to keep up with the demand. It’s not just a question of capacity, but also of cost.”
With its highly navigable rivers, which do not require heavy investment, the Amazon region is the country’s only area that’s fully utilizing water transport, Fialho says.
But the lack of water transport options in other parts of the country has added to the production costs of Brazil’s most exported commodities, with one example being the soy crop sector in northern Mato Grosso state, according to Fialho.
“It’s one of the most productive areas on earth, but the shipping costs are excessively high,” he adds. “They have to ship the harvest to the ports in trucks. A waterway that connected the North and Midwest regions and served as a substitute for highway transport could considerably lower shipping costs.”
Even with the cost advantages, water transport has taken a dive in recent decades.
“There was a period of growth in the naval industry during the 1970s and 1980s, but since 1990, beginning with the administration of [ex-President Fernando] Collor [de Melo], it’s been in decline,” says Meton Soares, the president of the National Federation of Maritime, Fluvial, Lacustrine and Port Traffic Enterprises (Fenavega) and vice president of the CNT. “The outcome is the almost complete lack of Brazilian ships working in international lanes.”
The abandonment of the Brazilian merchant marine fleet is as serious as the lack of investment in water transport, Soares says.
“We’re not opposed to seeing a foreign presence in the market, but we are against the absence of Brazilian companies in the shaping of water transport policies,” he says.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Brazil shipped as much as 47% of its freight in vessels sailing under the national flag. Now, the figure is less than 1%, according to Fenavega.
Integrated transport is the solution
Integrated transport – complementary utilization of highways, railways and waterways – is the ideal solution for a country of continental proportions, such as Brazil, Fenavega says.
“What’s currently holding up progress the water transport sector is the bureaucracy involved in its expansion,” says Paulo Caleffi, general secretary of the Interamerican Chamber of Transport (CIT).
Water usage is controlled by two national agencies – ANTAQ and the National Water Agency (ANA).
“When it comes to the rivers, priority is given to building hydroelectric plants, without any thought to making provisions for water transport,” Caleffi says. “This winds up invalidating the country’s most economically viable mode of transport.”
Success stories from the water transport sector should be taken into consideration, Caleffi says.
One of the successful initiatives is the transport of more than 3 million tons of grain annually between Porto Velho-Itacoatiara and Santarém, in northern Brazil, which reduces highway traffic to Paraná state’s Paranaguá port and São Paulo state’s Santos port.
Improvements stimulate investments
The main obstacle facing the water transport sector is adequate dredging, analysts say.
“The terminals aren’t prepared for today’s needs. There are practically no investments being made,” says Ático Scherer, the operational director of Navegação Aliança, part of the Trevisa group, which has a fleet of 16 vessels sailing out of Rio Grande do Sul state.
Another cause for concern is the lack of qualified labor, Scherer says.
“Some deals don’t get done because it’s impossible to access the port,” Scherer says. “There are a series of problems facing the water transport sector.”
The lack of opportunities also led to the abandonment of passenger service along the rivers connecting Porto Alegre and Guaíba, in Rio Grande do Sul.
After 50 years without service, the 15-km stretch (9.3 miles) will be covered by Catsul, a company from Ouro e Prata business group.
Ouro e Prata works with a company called Tapajós in northern Brazil, transporting roughly 250,000 passengers annually in Pará state, between the city of Santarém and neighboring cities. The number of passengers is 10 times larger today than in 2007, when it had just two vessels.
Now, it has six vessels.
The reason for growth? Investments.
“It’s the only means of transportation in that area, that’s why it’s so strong,” points out Carlos August Bernaud, Catsul operational director. “We decided to make the necessary investments and we came in with modern, fast equipment.”
The medium-term outlook for the Porto Alegre-Guaíba line is 2,000 passengers daily. Each trip is expected to cost between R$6 (US$3.60) and R$7 (US$4.20).
Yet the main selling point will be the time it takes to make the trip along the Guaíba River: 20 minutes, compared with more than an hour during rush hour on land.
Nelza Oliveira contributed from Rio de Janeiro.