Among the many efforts to boost the variety of transport options are government plans to revive cargo freight along several rivers. This has emerged out of a need to cut transport costs, which can be excessive in a country where harsh terrain and poor road infrastructure makes linking ports with production centres cumbersome. The potential is certainly there: the four biggest river systems combined extend for more than 24,000 km, of which 18,000 km have the potential to support increased cargo traffic.
Chief among Colombia’s rivers is the Magdalena, which runs 1500 km from its southern source at Páramo de las Papas north to the Caribbean Sea. Its sheer length, passing through 18 of the country’s 32 departamentos (provinces) where 60% of the population live, has traditionally made it an important transport route. Though freight already travels on the Magdalena, current volumes are well below their potential. The river’s navigability project will raise annual freight capacity from the current 2m tonnes to 6m tonnes over the next five years, according to the Autonomous Regional Corporation of the River Magdalena (Corporación Autonoma Regional del Rio Magdalena, Cormagdalena).
The river currently transports an average of 1.5m tonnes a year, mostly hydrocarbons and coal. Given its length and access to the central hinterland – its basin covers 24% of the nation’s territory – the Magdalena is a key to Colombia’s ambitions of enhanced transport multimodality. It also forms a natural link to the Caribbean ports of Barranquilla and Cartagena.
Cormagdalena launched the tender for the $1.3bn Rio Magdalena project in May 2014, aiming to establish a public-private partnership concession to dredge the river to a depth of two metres and a width of 52 metres. Work will focus on channelling and dredging the river on the 256 km running from El Salgar/La Dorada towards Barrancabermeja, as well as between Barrancabermeja and the access channel at Barranquilla, 652 km north.
Three consortia of Colombian and foreign companies have been pre-qualified for the project. These are the Navega Magdalena consortium, made up of Acciona from Spain, Castro Tcherassi from Colombia, and Belgian contractor Jan de Nul; Desarollo Magdalena, comprising the Spanish firm Iridium and Dutch operators RM Holding, Juneau Business and Van Oord; and a third, made up of Brazilian contractor Odebrecht and Colombian company Valorcon. Bidders were required to submit proposals by early July 2014, and Cormagdalena was expected to reveal the winner by the end of the month. No announcement had been made at the time of press.
Transport on the Magdalena River will be best suited to low-value commodities, due to the costs of keeping high-value goods in transit for several days. However, it will help bring logistics costs down. Moving a container from the country’s centre to its ports on the Atlantic coast can cost up to $3200, whereas the same route can be done by river for $1800, according to local media reports.
“The Rio Magdalena will be good for transporting commodities and supporting the mining industry. For these types of cargo it makes sense, and it will not be competing with road transport,” Juan Carlos Rodríguez Muñoz, president of the Colombian Federation of Road Cargo Transporters, told OBG.
A stronger focus on enhancing the Magdalena’s profile as a cargo route is encouraging other companies to invest. Significant interest is coming from port operators that run concessions in the Caribbean ports, who aim to increase synergies and offer multimodal services. In July 2013 Impala, a local terminal operator that specialises in transporting coal and hydrocarbons, announced an $800m investment to set up a multimodal system to ease the linkage between road and river transport.
Part of the investment will be used to build a port terminal in Barrancabermeja, mid-way along the river. The new infrastructure will be used to transport oil from Meta, and carbon from the Boyacá and the Cundinamarca regions, all the way north to the sea for export via the ports at Barranquilla and Cartagena. The company will also invest in new trucks and a network of vessels for liquid and container cargo.
In February 2014 the new Barranquilla container terminal, the first on the Magdalena River, began operations. The COP85bn ($42.5m) project is a joint venture between Bitco, a subsidiary of Sociedad Portuaria de Santa Marta, and private terminal operator SSA Marine. With an area of 3.5 ha, and room to grow by another 1.5 ha, the terminal can handle 190,000 twenty-foot equivalent units.
Transport vessel operators are joining the fray. Naviera Fluvial, Impala, Naviera Central and Rio Grande, all of which run transport ships along the river, are investing COP2trn ($1bn) in new vessels and infrastructure revamp, according to the Colombian National Association of Businessmen. Grupo Puerto Cartagena, for its part, is planning to build a new river terminal in the departamento of Cesar focusing on coal, hydrocarbons and bulk cargo (both liquid and solid).
The river project will be demanding. “Increasing navigability in the Rio Magdalena will be difficult because in some sections of it, soil build-up on the bottom of the river cannot be stopped due to the lack of vegetation on the mountains. So if you dredge the river to make it navigable, you will have to repeat the work every few years,” Alejandro Toro Londoño, general manager at Transmeta, a road transport firm, told OBG. Another issue could arise from the height of some existing bridges, which may need to be increased, according to Erikson López Díaz, commercial and logistics director at Corporación Colombiana de Logística, a transport company.
The concession deal requires the winner of the tender to carry out the work to increase navigability over the next three years and then maintain dredging to keep navigability for 10. A programme of reforestation is already under way along several sections of the river to help reduce soil build-up.
Other River Routes
A handful of other rivers are expected to undergo similar work to increase navigability in the coming years. On the 800-km Meta River in the Orinoquía region, authorities are preparing to invest COP6.1trn ($3bn) to ease transport of freight and build a network of river ports.
The government’s bet on the Magdalena River and other waterways presents an excellent opportunity to improve transport options throughout the country. The ability to link several now-isolated economic areas to port infrastructure on the Atlantic coast will lower transport costs for goods coming out of Colombia’s hinterland. In time, rural communities will become an integral part of the transport value chain.
But improving conditions on the river alone will not be enough. With mass investments taking place in other networks such as rail and road, the next step is to devise a comprehensive strategy to join the different components of the transport network and ensure that these work together as an efficient, seamless unit.