Water is essential to life and good health. It’s also vital to create jobs, propel economies forward, and boost social development.

More than 600 million people in Bangladesh and India live along the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna rivers. Millions more live near navigable tributaries. Moving goods via water is cheaper and more environmentally friendly than trucks on congested highways .

But much of the cross-border river traffic linking India, Bangladesh, and landlocked Nepal and Bhutan ended after the partition of India and conflicts that followed.

Image: Nature

Reviving the sprawling network of inland waterways and integrating them with coastal shipping is a priority to expand trade. A fully functioning network will allow a ship to pick up freight in Assam and sail south on the Brahmaputra River into Bangladesh .

From there, a ship can continue south to an ocean port in Chittagong or Kolkata or travel west to inland Indian ports on the Ganges River.

Important steps have already been taken to rebuild the role of rivers in regional trade.

Under the 2015 Coastal Shipping Treaty, India and Bangladesh now treat each other’s vessels as their own, allowing direct cargo movement between ports in both countries instead of via a third country.

A separate inland water agreement encourages commerce between the two countries by lifting restrictions on goods moving through each other’s territory. The Government of Nepal also recently opened its own inland vessel registry.

Many sections of rivers need to be dredged and deepened before ships can use them. Just 3 percent of Bangladesh’s containerized cargo traffic is currently transported on inland waterways, and an even smaller percentage in India.

The $400 million project will build and improve cargo terminals in Pangaon and Ashuganj and help Bangladesh’s Inland Water Transport Authority meet international shipping standards.

Passenger terminals at Sadarghat, Narayanganj, Chandpur, and Barisal are being upgraded to provide safer facilities and greater access to transport services, especially for vulnerable groups such as women, children, and the elderly.

In India, a major project is underway to improve the navigability of the Ganges River from the inland city of Varanasi to Haldia, an eastern seaport 1,360 kilometers away.

About 40 percent of India’s traded goods are either destined for or shipped from the fertile Ganges plains surrounding Varanasi.

However, less than one percent of that cargo is now shipped via water. Transportation planners aim to boost that to 10 percent when the waterway improvements are completed. Rail or road shipments take longer, less efficient routes that add costs.

Six cargo terminals will link the river with highways and a rail freight line to move goods to markets in India and abroad. Additional funding came from the United Kingdom and Australia through a trust fund promoting South Asia regional trade.

In a historic step forward for India’s waterways, food and beverage giant PepsiCo recently used the Ganges River — also known as National Waterway 1 — to ship containers holding the equivalent of 16 truckloads.

The November trip from Kolkata to Varanasi was the first cargo container shipment on India’s inland waterways since the country’s independence 70 years ago.

For example, a large container ship weighing about 2,000 tonnes can transport up to 90 containers, the equivalent of 90 truckloads of cargo.

A new car carrier vessel that can carry up to 300 small cars is being tested. Each of its shipments would remove the equivalent of 50 car-carrying trucks from the road.