Integration and innovation: the driving forces to face the future of waterways and river ports in the region

31 August 2022

A roundtable at AAPA LATINO will bring together key experts to discuss how creative solutions and a multimodal approach will facilitate dealing with crises such as disruptions and climate change in river and basin logistics.

A territory as vast and diverse as Latin America has been able to find multiple productive activities in its countries, as well as enhance different ways to connect the services and products that result from these economic activities regionally and globally.

Foreign trade and logistics, as axes of this activity, emerge as two powerful lines of action for the nations of the continent, representing -at the same time- an essential approach to promote their development for the upcoming years, especially in post-pandemic recovery contexts, with multinational companies and a global supply chain that is looking at Latin America with much greater interest than a few years ago.

But this continuous movement of goods between and from the countries in the region has not only found in the seaports and major shipping routes its essential pole of circulation, but it has also been able to identify points of diversification that allow them to leverage their geographical realities and optimize their strategic advantages: thus, the international trade through rivers and river terminals has also been part of the Latin American port essence.

A topic that will be thoroughly addressed during the program of conferences of the 30th Latin American Congress of Ports, to be held from November 28th to 30th in the Brazilian city of Santos, where more than 600 delegates, experts, executives and leaders from the regional logistics industry will participate.

The Roundtable "River Ports and Waterway" will address how in the past few years the economic and physical integration between countries in the region has been conducted using this mode of transport, identifying the actions and challenges that the region's authorities have been jointly working on, also providing a sustainable approach to the activity.

Facilitated by Juan Carlos Muñoz Menna, Director of the National Administration of Navigation and Ports (ANNP) and Director of the Center of River and Maritime Shipowners (CAFYM) of Paraguay, this panel discussion will bring together -among other prominent authorities- Juan Curbelo, President of the National Administration of Ports (ANP), Uruguay; José Renato Ribas Fialho; Acting Director of ANTAQ, Brazil; René Puche, President of the Port of Barranquilla, Colombia; and José Beni, Comptroller of the General Administration of Ports (AGP), Argentina.


In Latin America, especially South America, the waterway is a proven interconnection system, highly strategic and responsive to the interests and needs of its territories. With a total surface area of 17.8 million square kilometers, the region has about 12.4 million kilometers covered by some of its hydrographic basins, of which the most important are the Amazon, Orinoco, Paraguay-Parana and La Plata basins: in other words, 70% of its land is part of some basin, most of them with navigable rivers.

Cases such as the Magdalena River waterway, which interconnects the port of Barranquilla with several hydrocarbon and dry cargo production points in Colombian territory, ensuring their access to the rest of the world, are interesting examples of focused national systems in force, although they are always threatened by the effects of climate change, such as drought.

Other initiatives, such as the Amazon waterway, which the Peruvian National Port Authority plans to implement between the Marañon and Amazon rivers, linking Peru to Colombia and Brazil, are still draft projects without a specific date for their execution.

However, the most iconic multinational waterway is probably the Paraná/Paraguay, a natural river transport corridor of more than 3,400 kilometers that connects the town of Puerto Cáceres in Mato Grosso do Sul (Brazil) with the port of Nueva Palmira in Uruguay, covering vast territories of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, all of Paraguay and Uruguay, with a total area of influence of more than 3 million square kilometers.

Between 19 and 21 million tons of goods, downstream and upstream, are transported annually through the various river ports located along the banks of the torrent that connects the five nations, without taking into account the activity of the port of Buenos Aires, which acts as the terminus of this system and a hub for the shipment of some of these products to other parts of the world. The terminals of Paraguay are the busiest, with approximately 80% of this total, mostly grain, flour and oil.


The numbers, however, are falling. The climatic crisis, as well as the bottlenecks and logistic problems over the last year, are sowing uncertainty regarding the projection of trade through this important river system, located in the heart of the continent, while other alternatives of connection between countries are being developed, such as the bioceanic corridor that is projected -still in draft- to link more than 5,000 kilometers between Santos (Brazil) and the ports of Ilo (Peru) and Antofagasta (Chile).

"In July we completed 3 years with low water level and lack of rainfall in both basins of the Paraguay and Paraná rivers with different volumes of cargo, being the Paraguay-Paraná waterway that starts in Corumbá, passing through Paraguay to the Rio de la Plata and the ports of Uruguay, the most affected basin. In general terms, the times have doubled and the use of vessels at some points reached only 50% of their capacity, so the impact on service providers and cargo has been significant," explains Juan Carlos Muñoz Menna, Director of ANNP and facilitator of the discussion panel at AAPA LATINO.

The drought has reduced navigation times, which has led to diversify the possibilities of serving industries or sectors that -in less time- mean greater cargo flows. Projects related to cement, cellulose and iron, mainly in Brazil, seem to have growth potential in the medium term -around 2025-. At the same time, at the administrative level, the aim is to strengthen measures that promote the recovery of a regional -and not only national- integration perspective in the management of the waterway.

And in the meantime? "The next three years will be used to start thinking about more creative solutions, which are the ones that will be presented at the AAPA LATINO, particularly for the Paraguay River, which is a plain river without any type of intervention. An old project from the early 90's is being refloated: a low height dam in the Valle Alegre area, which is the tripartite landmark between Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil, on the northern part of the Paraguay River, which could be an alternative (...) What is certain and real is that there is conviction in the public and private sector that, once and for all, something more than mere maintenance dredging must be done", adds the Paraguayan executive.


René Puche, President of the port of Barranquilla and one of the speakers in the Roundtable "River Ports and Waterway", says - based on his experiences leading the main Colombian river port - he is in favor of exploring multimodal modes, which integrate solutions based on river navigation with other ways of moving cargo and goods, in order to take full advantage of the possibilities offered by Latin America's territorial diversity.

"I believe that talking about a waterway at the national level or even between several countries is an innovation, considering that currently we are relying on the roads for cargo transportation. I believe that, if we want to have efficient and sustainable logistics in the near future, we must move our efforts towards multimodalism, in which, according to the conditions of each country, we can integrate different types of transportation that allow an agile and safe connectivity," he said, anticipating part of his intervention in the panel.

Puche, who considers that AAPA LATINO "is the ideal scenario to put a subject like this on the table", calls for "generating a collaborative environment regarding the development of waterways, since in logistics it seems that the different associated businesses have grown organically, but not necessarily seeking to integrate with other actors in the chain".

Likewise, José Beni, Comptroller of the General Administration of Ports (AGP) of Argentina, assures that we must keep in mind the responsibilities of each State in the management of shared river routes, understanding that there is also a common and strategic approach among nations.

"The management of the Argentine Main Waterway, and especially the decision to recover a central role of the State in decision making, is considered strategic for our country. Also understanding that we are part of a system, an integrated basin that forms a central part in the logistics of our entire region", he says, agreeing that today it is a priority to address challenges such as drought, from a management that maximizes "the use of opportunities".

Regarding his participation in the panel, Beni adds that "the AAPA LATINO is one of the most important port events in Latin America, gathering the main authorities and experts from the sector" and that in this framework they hope "to be able to share the work carried out by the General Administration of Ports in the administration of the Main Waterway, and to discuss and coordinate policies at regional level on the management of the Paraná-Paraguay Waterway, which are fundamental since they are highly relevant issues for integration, trade and the development of our economies".