Inland waterways, China's traditional and at one time only effective form of long-distance transport, are beginning to make a comeback in the mainland's infrastructure planning. Although still at the feasibility-study stage, Chinese engineers and scientists have mapped out a series of ambitious schemes to reinvigorate the national inland waterway system, including a plan to reopen the famous Grand Canal linking Beijing with the Yangtze River delta. The initial capital investment in such massive engineering projects is expected to be high, but advocates point out that a network of modern canals would provide a much-needed long-term addition to the mainland's overburdened freight and passenger transport system. 'Canals and inland waterways offer a cheap, reliable and environmentally sound alternative to the rail system, especially for the transport of bulk raw materials such as coal,' a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences said. The academy is involved in the feasibility study for the Shoutian Canal, which would channel water from the Yellow River 867 kilometres from the central northern region of Ningxia to Tianjin on the east coast. China's rail network, which succeeded the inland waterways as the main form of freight transport earlier this century, carries about 75 per cent of all freight in the country. However, the Ministry of Railways estimates that, at best, the network can satisfy only about 60 per cent of demand for passenger and freight services. Despite massive expansion plans for the rail network over the next five years, economists predict growth in demand will continue to outstrip growth in supply. 'China needs to develop as many different forms of freight transport as possible - rail, road, air and water - if it is to sustain its high level of economic growth,' a Western transport specialist in Beijing said. 'In this regard, it makes a great deal of sense to me for them to look at revitalising the inland waterway system.' Analysts also pointed out that the proposed canal schemes would go a long way to easing water shortages in arid rural areas and major northern Chinese cities, particularly Beijing, which has struggled for centuries to provide sufficient water for its inhabitants. There are three canal schemes under discussion designed to link Beijing in the north with the Yangtze River in the south. The most promising of the three, according to researchers at the Academy of Sciences, is a 1,000-kilometre canal linking the capital with the Danjiangkou reservoir on the border with Henan and Hubei, which would eventually link up with the Yangtze River to the south. An alternative scheme essentially would reopen the northern channel of the old Grand Canal from Suzhou, in northern Jiangsu, to Beijing. The southern channel from Xuzhou to the Yangtze delta is still in operation and has become an increasingly important artery for transporting coal from northern China to the energy-starved hinterland of Shanghai. The waterway was used to transport 24.5 million tonnes of coal last year and freight volume is expected to increase significantly this year. Coal is transported by rail from Shaanxi, Inner Mongolia and Shanxi to Xuzhou, where it is loaded on to barges. However, researchers say if the waterway was extended north to Beijing and Tianjin it would then link up with the proposed Shoutian Canal and provide a direct water channel from the main coal-producing provinces to the Yangtze delta area. A comprehensive feasibility study on the Shoutian Canal was completed last July and has the backing of senior officials in the ministries of communications and water resources. It is estimated the scheme will cost 34.47 billion yuan (about HK$32 billion). This was not only five billion yuan less than the highly publicised Beijing to Kowloon railway, but also would provide greater long-term economic benefit, advocates said. The canal would solve the problems of coal transport from the north-central provinces and greatly enhance communications between the northeast coast and the inland areas of northern China, they said. Critics of the scheme said the flow of the Yellow River, which would feed the canal, had always been highly erratic and there was no guarantee the river would be able to provide sufficient volume of water to operate the canal. Sudden flooding of the notoriously dangerous river also could present problems for the canal, they said. Supporters of the scheme said all these questions had been thoroughly evaluated in the feasibility study and did not affect significantly the project's viability. Transport experts, while generally favouring boosting the waterway network, warned that building the canals would solve only half the problem. Operation and managerial efficiency would have to be greatly enhanced if the canals were to realise their full potential, they said. 'Right now, China's inland waterways are a mess in terms of overlapping administrative structures and just plain over-use,' a Western transport consultant said. 'A lot more work needs to be done in bringing some order to the chaos that exists on many rivers and canals at the moment.'