World’s Most Important Waterways

Here are the world's most important waterways!


If you order something online, how does it get to you? You might not be aware, but a staggering 90% of all globally traded goods are carried by ships, many of which rely on intra-country waterways to get from A to B. These often giant, or sometimes surprisingly tiny, waterways are used to cut down travel times so that your Amazon package gets to you faster! But that’s not all they’re built for!

From providing impossible-looking passageways across countries, to the narrow straits giant ships are launched in, let's explore some of the most important waterways, and how they’ve changed the world around them.

Panama Canal

Considered one of the most ambitious construction projects in history, the 50-mile-long Panama Canal is a modern marvel of engineering. It provides a route between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, significantly reducing the distance and time required for ships to pass between the two.


Before its completion in 1914, ships had to go the long way round, all the way down to South America’s Cape Horn! It took 10 long years of drilling through solid rock, with more than 3.5 billion cubic feet of dirt removed, creating a trench 295 ft wide, 10 stories deep, and more than 130 football fields in length.

And this was all done with dynamite, pickaxes, and coal-powered steam shovels! But by providing a link through Panama, the journey between the two oceans was shortened by a whopping 9,000 miles. What would have been a two month voyage over the dangerous waves and violent winds of the cape, has been reduced to a 10 hour canal crossing.


Who doesn’t love a shortcut? It does, however, come at a price. Depending on the size of the vessel, it can cost between 500 to 800,000 dollars to use! That’s a steep toll, for sure. But, the savings in distance, time, and fuel make this canal’s efficiency a worthwhile expense. But why is it so expensive?

Part of it is because the Atlantic and Pacific oceans are actually different heights. So, the Panama Canal is fitted with a series of locks, which are essentially tiny chambers, less than 1000 ft long and 110 ft wide. Each has a gate that allows water in or out to lift and lower boats to different water levels.

When the boat needs to be lifted, an inlet gate is opened and water is let into the chamber, raising the vessel. When it needs to be lowered, the outlet gate is opened, and water is released from the chamber. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of water that needs to be shifted, and the locks need to be well maintained, hence the hefty price of passage.

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Thanks to this amazing feature, all massive ships can make a smooth transition from one sea to the next. Used primarily for US ships to travel to Asia, this 10-year mammoth construction project now sees 13 to 14,000 ships pass through it each year, with an average of $2.6 billion made in traffic revenue!

Houston Ship Channel

At the start of the 20th century, Texas was home to the Buffalo Bayou; a swampy, marshy waterway that stretched from the coast to the heart of Texas. But it was so badly overgrown that only a few steamboats and shallow draft boats could navigate it.

Then in 1909, the potential of having a waterway that could stretch from the Gulf of Mexico to Harris Country, Texas, suddenly dawned on the locals. They spent 5 years clearing and dredging 50 miles of the Bayou until it was some 500 ft wide and 45 ft deep.


And today, The aptly named Houston Ship Channel is one of America’s most efficient waterways, providing a link between Houston and the rest of the world! In 2022, it set a record as 55 million tons of cargo passed through it that year alone! It links together hundreds of enterprises, with its connected industrial complex alone valued at $3 billion, employing some 55,000 people.

Today, it returns over $800 billion in economic value, taking up 20 percent of Texas’ total GDP! The impact this one channel has had on the country can’t be ignored, especially considering that the Port of Houston was the first to introduce container shipping in the States!

The channel pretty much opened up the American south to networks all around the world, making the waterway one of the country’s busiest. It’s so vital to Texas’ ability to trade worldwide, that if it had remained some swampy little Bayou, it’s likely Texas would never have experienced the growth in wealth it has done!


Currently, it’s set to undergo its 11th major expansion, aiming to be completed in 2025 with a whopping $1 billion investment. The project intends to widen the channel further, to an enormous 700 ft.

China's Grand Canal

What’s the longest and oldest man-made canal in the entire world? The answer is China’s Grand Canal, which is 1,114 miles long and was only considered complete after a staggering 2,000 years, though sections are being reconstructed and renovated to this day!


It’s almost impossible to believe, but prior to the Industrial Revolution, the Grand Canal was considered the world’s largest and most expansive engineering project. It was conceived to unify inland communication for the Sui Dynasty Empire, as well as to send troops, materials, and food to feed the population.

Construction on this beast began way back in 486 BCE, and with sections built, abandoned, and rebuilt over the years, it’s believed more than 9 million people were involved in its construction, including its 21 gateways and 60 bridges. This waterway runs from Beijing all the way to Hangzhou, and connects two of China’s largest rivers; the Yangtze and Yellow, with an estimated 100,000 vessels passing through each year.

It also transports 260 million tons of cargo annually, continually boosting the country’s economy. At its peak use, during the 15th and 16th centuries, approximately 400,000 tons of grain were transported along it each year.


In its earlier construction history, straw, stone, clay, and earth were all used to build elements of the waterway. But it became such an essential transport link that by 1958, work was underway to allow the canal to carry ships that weighed up to 600 tons each, and now it can support medium-sized barge vessels along its entire length!

Veluwemeer Aqueduct

Amazing maritime architecture isn’t all about trade routes and cargo. It can also be used to make your morning commute easier. Instead of building a bridge over the water, a unique design constructed in the Netherlands has created a bridge of water! It can be found over the busy N302 road, which links the mainland to a large artificial island called Flevoland, across the bordering Lake Veluwe.


Back in the early 2000s, engineers wanted a way of connecting Lake Veluwe to Lake Wolderwijd for all the maritime traffic, which was separated by the road. A typical drawbridge wouldn’t do, because some 28,000 vehicles used the road every day, and waiting for a drawbridge to open and close would cause some serious tailbacks.

So, they proposed an 82 ft long, 62 ft wide, and 9 ft deep aqueduct that would allow vessels to pass over the road, like a bridge built especially for boats. And it came out at a better price, too. Compared to the $61 million aqueduct, a drawbridge with many moving parts can cost hundreds of millions of dollars!

After the confirmation of the design, the Veluwemeer Aqueduct was built back in 2002 using over 700,000 cubic ft of concrete and steel to hold the water weight above the roadway. With this mammoth stronghold, it’s able to prevent water from spilling out the sides onto the highway.


Unfortunately, large ships are unable to cross the aqueduct, because they generally have an average draft (how deep they sit in the water) of 30-50 ft. With the bridge only having a 9 ft depth, it’s used by small to medium-sized vessels only.

Volga Don Canal

The aptly named Volga Don Canal is a ship channel that links the Russian rivers Volga and Don. It provides the only route through the Caspian Sea and the Sea of Azov to the main oceans, making it a very important shipping route. So important, that works initially started all the way back in the 16th century. Some 30 subsequent attempts were made to connect the rivers, but all ended in failure.

Even Russian Tsar Peter the Great tried and failed to connect the two routes! It wouldn’t be until 1948, under Soviet Rule, that the canal and its facilities would be built and connected. It required the manpower of 900,000 people in total, with the canal completed just four years later in 1952, sitting at 262 ft wide, 26 ft deep, and 62 miles long.


Much like the Panama Canal, the two connected rivers are at different heights, so the canal possesses 13 locks. From the highest point between the two rivers, 4 locks are required to reach the Don over a series of reservoirs, meaning the route descends some 144ft.

However, from that same point, it takes 9 locks to reach the Volga, which requires more because it runs along a significantly steeper route that descends some 288 ft. And while it was completed more than 50 years ago, it still remains one of the most world-changing waterways to this day.


Not only did it serve as a symbol of power for the Soviet Union, it provided Russia with valuable links to the international market as a trade route to the Black Sea. This has proved incredibly beneficial to the region’s economy and continued to do so.

It provides the shortest navigable connection between the otherwise landlocked Caspian Sea and the world’s oceans, its power stations generate enough electricity to make most of the mechanisms along the canal self-sufficient.


Rotterdam is a Dutch city that’s famous for its many, many, many canals. A lot of these waterways, called Singels, were built to prevent the spread of cholera in the 19th century. They did this by cleverly flushing all infected sewage and water out to sea.

However, the Winschoterdiep waterway in Groningen is used to release something completely different into its waters: Ships!

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Located on the banks of the canal, the Ferus Smit Shipyard is one of the most famous in the world. They have built and launched 470 ships and counting, with 6-8 delivered every year. One such trading giant, The Arklow Accord, has been built to transport products like wheat and corn on European waterways and is a massive 390 ft in length.

These ships can reach more than 400 ft long but are only around 50 ft wide. This makes them perfect to travel the narrow canal straits. The Winschoterdiep is 328 ft wide on average, but these gigantic vessels are so narrow, Ferus Smit can launch them in sections that are less than 100 ft wide!

However, they still make a big impact, and because this section of the canal runs right beside a public road, when a giant ship is launched, the splash often hits the other side of it! This fairly thin canal may not look like much, but it can certainly take the weight of Ferus Smit’s vessels, which is a feat in itself!

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Erie Canal

It doesn’t look like it from just a glance, but the Erie Canal might just be one of America’s fastest money makers! The waterway, which opened for business in 1821, links the Great Lakes to the Hudson River and the Atlantic Ocean, making it some 351 miles long. It became an instant success; used by merchant ships, it was responsible for reducing the cost of transportation by up to a staggering 95%.


Back before railroads and water transport were the primary ways bulk goods were shipped, the reliance was on animals like mules. Mules can only carry about 250 lbs of goods on land, but they can draw a barge in the water weighing up to 60,000 lbs, some 30 tons along a towpath.

To carry goods from Buffalo to New York, it cost about $100 a ton before the Erie was constructed. After its completion, with mules now capable of hauling 240 times more cargo per trip, that cost came crashing down to just $10 a ton.


And that’s not this canal’s only remarkable legacy. The Erie is responsible for encouraging canal construction statewide, after turning New York into a major commercial center! Many engineers working on the canal went on to construct many other valuable waterways and railroads in the US, thanks to their work on the Erie.

Its usage kept strong into the 20th century, becoming an indispensable shipping route that connected many cities. Nowadays, tourist ships are the main source of traffic, turning the main stretch of the canal into a destination hotspot.


This waterway has had more evolutions than a Pokémon! It put New York on the map, for one. It birthed a whole network of American canal routes from its popularity. It reduced a two-week stagecoach journey to a five-day voyage by water, and saved merchants a literal ton!


The Khlongs refer to a whole network of canals in Thailand, which remarkably predate large roads. It’s believed they were first dug into the landscape over 600 years ago and built by local residents to allow merchant ships to move through the country freely.

Connected by three large rivers Chao Phraya, Mae Klong, and Tha Chin, the 1682 Khlongs collectively span some 1618 miles in length, and form an impressive spider’s web of shipping routes and sewer routes in the capital of Bangkok alone! To this day, food, textiles, pottery, and building materials are all transported to different towns via the canals, even being sold by the water in "floating markets."


These Khlongs ruled Thailand’s transportation scene before Europeans became increasingly frustrated at having to float everywhere! With rising Western influence, roads started to overtake the canals, and some were sadly buried and built over. Today, they function more as a tourist route, which has saved the Khlongs from falling into disuse entirely.

In fact, roads only take up 8% of the area of Bangkok, proving that these waterways are still an essential transport system. They’re probably quicker than driving, too! People have historically lived beside these canals, which is scary. Who wouldn’t be terrified of flooding?

But, strong embankments, stilts, and barges keep all these homes afloat. Thai architecture continues to build new, flood-resistant houses that are anchored to the shores. Fitted with steel pontoons and filled with Styrofoam, they can lift the structure 9 ft from the ground when water infiltrates!


Pontcysyllte Aqueduct

Another awe-inspiring structure is the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. The 18 arch stone structure was built back in 1805 in Wales and, at an amazing 126 ft tall, it still stands as the highest aqueduct in the entire world today!


During the early 19th century, this kind of engineering was completely unheard of. It was part of a very risky career move from architect Thomas Telford, who designed this aqueduct for narrowboats carrying coal.

Part of the Llangollen Canal, it made journeys between the steep valleys separating northeast Wales and England much easier. At the time of its completion, the structure was three times the size of existing aqueducts, making Telford’s project a ground-breaking achievement!

Today, if you’re brave enough, it even sports a footpath! The path thankfully has iron railings on one side, but on the other side, nothing! It’s completely open to the air and gravity. Even so, many boats and even paddleboarders cross the aqueduct every day.

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With only one set of railings to prevent you from going over, and with the channel being only 12 ft wide, it looks more like a dangerous, watery tightrope act than a typical aqueduct voyage!

Corinth Canal

The Grecian Canal boasts a pretty unique world record; it’s the deepest waterway in the entire world, at a scary 259 ft deep! But for all its depth, the Corinth Canal, is only 81 ft wide, meaning ships sometimes struggle to squeeze through its slim passageway, with vessels wider than 58 ft unable to cross it altogether!


Its jagged walls have also been known to cause landslides, blocking the canal itself! When ships can successfully pass through, the waterway connects the Corinthian Gulf of the Ionian Sea to the Saronic Gulf of the Aegean Sea. This once prevented ships from having to navigate 400 miles around the dangerous Peloponnese peninsula; the underwater rocks and ragged coastline of which can cause some serious damage.

This was a problem that ships faced a long time ago; as far back as the 7th century BCE! Periander, the ruler of Corinth at the time, knew the treacherous peninsula journey could be avoided by linking the two seas. But, the technology needed to carve out such a waterway through more than 250 ft of sheer rock was just not advanced enough.

Many tried throughout history, including the Roman emperors Nero and Julius Caesar, but none could literally. Attempts recommenced in 1881, but it was so costly to cut through the rock it literally bankrupted its builders! It was finally completed in 1893, after countless failed attempts and more than 30 million francs, some $175 million today of costs.


And at long last, Periander’s vision was complete! This canal might have been easy for 19th-century ships to pass through but certainly not the larger models today, which can reach more than 225 ft across, almost 3 times the width of the Corinth! Despite this, it’s still in use and sees 15,000 ships sail through it per year!

Suez Canal

Back in 2021, headlines were dominated by a global panic about a ship that had gotten stuck in the Suez Canal. The ship, which was called the Evergiven and owned by the Evergreen company, had drifted and run aground in the canal, holding up ships in both directions!


One ship blocking one canal might not seem like such a big deal but based on the value of the goods passing through the Suez each day, for the 151 hours it was stuck there, it’s estimated to have cost a bank-breaking $60.4 billion in trade. This catastrophic event made it clear just how vital the Suez Canal is to our global trade systems.

This waterway connects the Gulf of Suez in Egypt with the Mediterranean Sea, and makes it possible for Europe to easily access these regions. Because the water levels on both sides are roughly equal, the sea moves freely down this route no locks required! So, at 120 miles long and just over 670 ft wide, the Suez cuts travel between Asia and Europe by a staggering 4,300 miles!

It particularly impacts those traveling from the Persian Gulf to Northern Europe, because that trip around Africa is some 13,000 miles and takes about 24 days. But using the Suez Canal, the trip is just 7,000 miles and takes less than two weeks.

©Google Maps

But it wasn’t wizardry that built the Suez Canal, it was one and a half million people! When work started on this megaproject back in 1859, these workers were responsible for moving an estimated 2,613 million cubic feet of earth, 600 million on land, and 2,013 million through dredging, to make this canal a reality. And even then, it took a decade to build and finally opened in 1869.

Before then, any connection between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean was considered impossible, so land routes were used to trade goods across countries. Horse-drawn vehicles and trains had to be used between Britain and Africa, resulting in journeys that could take at least 6 months!

This canal has continually been expanded through the years, allowing increasingly bigger cargo ships to use its waterways, making it more and more valuable to the global shipping industry!


It was enlarged in 2014 with a side channel opened to one section in 2016. And modern technology has made it possible to expand it even further, with future plans promising to add more than 44 miles of new channels and bypasses. This project hopes to increase the volume of passing ships from 49 to 97 a day, more than doubling its current annual revenue from $5.3 billion to $13.2 billion!

The South To North Water Transfer Project

Over in China, one of the most ambitious maritime projects in history is currently under construction, one destined to quench the country’s massive thirst! At present, roughly a third of China’s 1.3 billion strong population live in the north, an area much drier than the south.

But instead of moving an entire population further south for water, The South To North Diversion Project will bring water to the North! The project involves building three main canals, two of them more than 800 miles long each! These will divert water from three of the country’s major rivers: the Yangtze River, the Yellow River, and the Han River.

©Google Maps

And not just a small amount of water, but some 12 trillion gallons every year! This is a massive undertaking, and with more than $79 billion poured into the project since it was launched in 2002, it’s one of the most ambitious engineering projects to date. And part of that comes down to the inclusion of structures like the Shahe aqueduct, which is the world’s largest aqueduct ever built.

Within the Shahe, four water channels run parallel to one another, 7 ½ miles long, 26 ft wide, and 24 ft high, each of them transporting separate water streams. Made from reinforced concrete, each pre-fabricated flume (segment constructed in a factory) transported, and installed on-site, weighs up to 1,200 tons!

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So this was no small task to construct, and while the Shahe is now in full use, the full South to North Diversion project has an estimated completion date of 2050! Still, China will hopefully be securing the water access and welfare of many future generations to come. So, if you can’t go with the flow, you make the flow go with you!

I hope you were amazed at the world's most important canals, waterways, and aqueducts! Thanks for reading!

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