The Future Of Canal Transport–Take The Elevated

A guest post by Joseph Friedlander
George Friedman of Stratfor,  in writing about America’s 
“Inevitable Empire”
touches on the vital capital saving aspects of waterborne
transport over land transport. Large cargo carrier ships are often many times
cheaper than small river barges. Small river barges are often many times
cheaper than railroads, which are cheaper than trucks.
In that article he estimates the capital saving factor of
water over land transport to be from 10 to 30 times cheaper.  Navigable rivers do not share storm surge
problems or tidal variations like coastal seaports.
The problem of course is that navigable rivers are where
they are and not where they are not. (In that article, uniquely the US map
overlays the richest agricultural lands on Earth with the easiest river
transport network.  Thus “The Inevitable
Empire”—assuming the USA could stay united and control its’ maritime
Other countries have fine cropland, but abysmal crop
transport possibilities. And it’s not just crops that get transported but space
age hardware, too. From the Michoud plant in Louisiana the Saturn V first stage
and later the Space Shuttle External Tanks were easily barged to Florida.  By contrast the SRB Solid Rocket Boosters
were forced to a segmented design that killed the Space Shuttle Challenger in
1986 because a one-piece SRB could not be sent whole from Utah to Florida. No
water transport.
Whole factories can be barged from shipyard to final coastal
Daniel K. Ludwig, around 1967-1981, had a plan for the Jari project–
which was an attempt to make a woodpulp tree farm in the heart of Brazil. To do
so, the American billionaire Daniel K. Ludwig had a turnkey pulp mill built in
modular barge form in Japan–

Ludwig had also commissioned two large
ship-shaped platforms that were built in Japan and floated to the Jari Project.
One barge module contained the pulping sector of the pulp mill. This module
housed the digesting the brown stock the bleach plant and the pulp machine. The
second module housed the recovery boiler, the evaporators and the recaust. The
pulp mill barge was finished in 1978 and launched on February 1. It traveled
through the Indian Ocean and through the Cape of Good Hope, arriving at the
Brazilian city of Munguba on April 28. The power group module arrived four days
later. Both barges were floated into specially built locks. Hundreds of gum
wood piles had been driven into the ground to support the two barges. By
closing the locks and pumping the water out, the barges gently settled on the
many piles.

By having this industrial plant built in a
controlled environment and towed halfway around the world, Ludwig avoided the
huge logistical difficulties of building small piece by small piece in the
middle of a wilderness.

There is no reason gigantic apartment buildings cannot be
built in ‘shipyards’ and barged to their destinations (possibly on their sides)
The logistics are compelling and overwhelming—as long as you
have a navigable river going to your destination.
But suppose we could build a navigable river anywhere?
The Magdeburg  Canal Bridge in Germany might technically be
called a navigable aquaduct but it differs in both feel and practicality from
earlier efforts. Compare the smaller ones shown on this web page
with the Magdeburg water bridge and you will be comparing a
toy tool with a professional power tool.

Germany: The Magdeburg Water Bridge – Wasserstraßenkreuz Magdeburg

Magdeburg Water Bridge

Facts about Magdeburg  Canal Bridge
  • six years to build
  • cost of 500 million Euros
  • 918 meters long
  • 545000 Euros per meter
  • Width   34 m
  • Water depth     4.25 m
  • Longest span    106 m
  • Total length       918 m (690 m over land and 228 m over water)
  • Clearance below           90.00 m x 6.25 m
  • 68,000 cubic meters of concrete and 24,000 metric tons of steel
  • Connects Hannover and Berlin directly
  • Connects Berlin’s inland harbor network and Rhine river ports.
This being Next Big Future, we take the obvious and intuitive step of wondering what would happen if this sort of thing became widespread.
Forget 6 years for a unique product to be engineered and built, and postulate Broad Group style mass manufacturing and rapid deployment.
As built the 4.25 water depth is larger than many areas with rough bottom on the Mississippi, for example. But the more reliable clearance on the bottom can enable larger cargoes with confidence.
Although our fantasies would like a super canal bridge able to float the heaviest supertankers, don’t forget a mere 34 m wide bargeway can float at a guess ten thousand ton barge clusters, depending how straight it is and if you operate it as a single lane vs double lane highway. Barges can be grouped and assembled into trains with multiple tugs providing huge power.
Assuming 5 meters a second throughput, 200 seconds to clear each kilometer span, and one 10,000 ton barge per interval, we see that a (for example) 100 kilometer stretch of such elevated canal could move a million tons of cargo each 6 hours. Individual barge clusters could be assembled that could hold not merely a Saturn 5, but a Nova or possibly a Sea Dragon.
As for the cost per meter, this was a unique project, with all charges piled on top, the engineering, the extra costs of a flagship project, and so forth. We can imagine 200,000 tons of structure a kilometer being built for 200 million Euro. This is still a lot but one can imagine the economic benefits to many small countries which could use a few hundred kilometers of such “navigable river’ say from a seaport to an interior city.
To go higher of course you would build locks that would be elevators in which a barge train would float up on a rising water level to an upper level canal. The thing about water being, it seeks its own level. One can imagine 100-meter high elevated rivers near the coasts, and at the 100 meter altitude level inland there might be locks like floodable elevator shafts into which you would pump 200 meters of water to raise the barge train  to a higher system with 300 meter elevations—the doors would open and you would join the waters of the 300 meter elevated canal system..  Glancing at a map, you might have areas of similar altitude connected by rivers on stilts.
Nor is this the limit, since the tallest easily built structures of iron might be 3-5 kilometers high (warning, the higher you go the more braced for earthquake and wind loads you had better be:) The fact that the highest existing structures are of the 400-800 meter range merely proves we are not used to using the materials we have now to their limits.   But in most cases these extreme altitudes would not be necessary because a multi-level system connected by locks would be far more practical to build. Since the average height of the lands of the continents is a mere 840 meters 2760 feet
under 10 locks should connect most parts of even very extensive countries.

In some countries this will be more practical than others.  In Australia, for example

 Elevation by percentage of Australian land mass

 Attribution: Geoscience Australia 

AREA (km2)
Below sea level
8 500
0 – 199m
2 909 500
200 – 499m
3 728 700
500 – 999m
940 600
1000 – 1499m
66 600
1500 – 1999m
5 200
2000m +
* Excludes islands
Of course, Australia is the lowest continent in terms of elevation, so this is an easy case. There are also less than a dozen major cities to link, and the agricultural areas are few compared to the vast deserts.
In China, on the other hand, there is a vertical range of 9004 meters, more than in any other country. That’s what happens for having Mt. Everest bring up the average –and also the very extensive Tibetan Plateau.  One can imagine canals even there—the problem would be keeping them from freezing in other than the height of summer. What would they carry? Minerals from the mountains. More vital and earlier built would be cross-canals linking otherwise separate shipping networks via existing natural river barges.
One can imagine politicians in elevated capitals such as Mexico City demanding barge ports that don’t really pay by subsidizing stretches of elevated river, perhaps with 10 or 20 different locks, to get to the altitude of the capital. Even the lowest portions of which are around 2,200 meters above sea level That certainly would not be the best use of the money; a far richer system could be spent opening up lowlands with no good transport but abundant (and heavy to transport) material goods which could be exported.
Below is a (highly) speculative map showing possible locations for new navigable ‘rivers’ assuming the costs could be financed and the host countries were eager. Remember that we don’t put artificial rivers where we can get natural ones for free, so some places you would expect to see them lack prospective canals, because existing water systems can link the isolated lines.  The map is based on the NGDC world elevation map at
(For geography fanatics a 13 megabyte enlargement of the underlay map is available at
Supposing the cost were not 200 million euros per kilometer but 10 times lower still (through a combination of vastly cheaper raw materials and huge mass production efficiencies) then such a map might be practical. 100000 kilometers of canal then would cost 20 million euros a kilometer or 2 trillion Euro for such a network.
At lower prices even quite small countries might do an extensive network. Even water poor countries such as Israel. (If you multiply say 5 meters depth of water times 30 meters wide times say 4 million meters for a 4000 km network that is .6 cubic kilometer in the whole system—large but not undoable since there would be only 120 million meters of surface area to evaporate from—which is less than the surface area of the Sea of Galilee, which already is exposed for evaporation.
Below is a hypothetical mid range system designed for Israel, only around a 2000 km network (I am not sure the higher elevations would pay). If 20 million Euros a kilometer that would run 40 billion Euro.  A large amount for a small country but it would enable logistical capabilities and saving that are simply not available now in that country. (A few years ago, when a major power station component arrived in a port, entire highways had to be shut down to move it on specialized trucks.  When the nuclear station at Dimona was being built, dominating the logistics was the railroad spur that enabled moving heavy parts from the port to the high desert.  Israel is dominated by terrain transitions and is not the easiest country to design a coherent network for.

In most small countries, especially relatively flat ones, the ability to create new navigable canals in straight lines between supply and demand could spur major economic growth and logistics savings.
When will the next great era of canal building begin?

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