Julian Hunt writes about the challenges and opportunities that the development of a South American Waterway System could bring to the region.

South America has been developed from its coast to its hinterlands since the beginning of its Western colonization. To date, no significant effort has however been made to integrate its interior. Waterway transportation could potentially be the most sustainable inland mode of transportation due to its low CO2 emissions per ton of cargo transport. With this in mind, my colleagues and I investigated the history, challenges, and opportunities of the South America Waterway System (SAWS).

Up to the 1950s, the South American economy was geared for the export of primary products largely transported via river and rail. With the acceleration of the industrialization process in the second half of the twentieth century, public planning shifted in favor of the road sector to the detriment of railroads, especially in heavy industry and mineral extraction. As a result, road highway networks, the most expensive mode of transport for cargo freight after the air mode, moved most of the cargo in South America by the turn of the century.

South America has one of the world's highest potentials for waterways, given its relatively flat topography and large water availability. However, the full potential of waterways has not yet been explored in South America. For example, most of the region’s hydroelectric dams have valuable waterway transport potential, but most of them were built without locks. This trend has continued with the new dams being built in the Amazon basin, especially in the Madeira, Tapajos, and Xingu rivers.

Several proposals have been made for a South America Waterway System (SWAS) connecting the Amazon, La Plata, and Orinoco basins. The project was first proposed by German engineers Alexandre von Humboldt and Carl von Martius in 1808, again by Eduardo Moraes, a Brazilian entrepreneur in 1894, and then by Argentinian President Sarmiento in the 19th century. Recently, the concept was taken up by the Development Bank of Latin America and the South American Regional Infrastructure Integration Initiative.

Interconnecting the three great river basins of South America would be a technical undertaking far less expensive or difficult than building the Panama Canal and the Mississippi-Missouri-Ohio river system in the USA. More than 92% of the 10,000 kilometers of the SWAS can already be navigated eight months a year by boat drafting 1.2 meters of water. Only three locks, comprising 680 kilometers, impede interconnecting the three basins. Civil engineering work will have to be done to make the waterway. In 2022, the estimated cost for the waterway was US$ 3.6 billion.

The South American Waterway System will result in a 51,200 km waterway, including the existing waterways in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela. This will make it possible for all South American nations to have a high level of commercial integration.

Map of South America showing the proposed waterway system © Hunt et al. (2022).
South America Waterway System highlighting the relevant country divisions, water basins and rivers.


The SWAS will enable the assimilation of the labor force that is currently unemployed, integrating the three low population areas of the continent (Amazonia, the Pantanal, and Patagonia) spatially, economically, socially, and culturally – a land that is currently perceived as a broken structure with social and economic systems that are completely isolated.

At this point, economic activity will not be the initial cause of the development of the SWAS but rather its subsequent result. The major gains will come from the external economies produced as a result of concerted efforts from the entire South American continent. We might claim that this initiative hints at economic expansion with a focus on raising the incomes of the underprivileged, causing society to become more concerned and cautious about environmental destruction.

It is important to remember that the SWAS is situated in the largest natural area on the planet, where around 20% of the world's fresh water occurs. Additionally, it is crucial to keep in mind that some ecosystems, like the soils in the Amazon, are extremely fragile, emphasizing the necessity of treating them rationally. This suggests that the potential for agricultural exploitation should be strictly constrained. Naturally, extra attention will need to be paid to environmental issues.

We need to be certain that the nations involved in this plan would adequately safeguard other factors, including the preservation of cultural property, the wealth of genetic diversity, and the welfare of future generations. We believe that South America's current and varied issues, such as forest logging or shanty settlements in urban areas, will start to be seriously considered and treated with the help of the SWAS. The comparison of deforestation surrounding existing road and waterway infrastructure in the Amazon region indicates that deforestation around the future SWAS will not be difficult to control.

To ensure that the economic, environmental, and social aspects of the proposed waterway are considered, an initial South America Waterway Sustainable Framework has been proposed. The main aspects analyzed in this research were the possibility of using the SAWS to improve monitoring of deforestation and other illegal activities in the region, as all goods would have to pass through only a few choke points in the waterways, ultimately reducing the deforestation of the Amazon forest. It also proposes solutions to seasonal water availability, one with reservoirs built parallel to the river and another using the groundwater storage capacity within the sedimentary basin.

If this waterway system is to be considered in the future, the proposed framework needs to be substantially expanded and detailed, and a cohesive and ambitious regional development plan needs to be developed. The SAWS has a large potential for sustainable development in South America, while simultaneously reducing the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest.


Hunt, J., Pokhrel, Y., Chaudhari, S., Mesquita, A.L.A., Nascimento, A., Leal Filho, W., Biato, M.F., Schneider, P.S., et al. (2022). Challenges and opportunities for a South America Waterway System. Cleaner Engineering and Technology e100575. DOI: 10.1016/j.clet.2022.100575. [pure.iiasa.ac.at/18317]


Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.