Water is needed to prepare and produce concrete by mixing cement and water, besides a few other ingredients. Water is again needed in good quantities for curing of concrete. But is that all? Can cement and water get together to achieve something bigger, something more strategic - for example, could we transport bulk cement on water? Such possibilities open up new avenues of cost and carbon reduction. However, this is not new to the global cement industry. Countries like China, Bangladesh and Indonesia who are geographically quite generously endowed with natural navigable inland waterways, have been successfully exploiting water transportation for moving around bulk commodities like coal and cement. However, in India, it remains a novel concept.
On second thoughts, that sounds like a oversimplified statement, because it has now been already many years that companies like Ambuja Cement and UltraTech and a few others have been striving to reduce their logistics cost and increase their market reach by carrying bulk cement along the western coast from Gujarat to our southern states and Sri Lanka. We have called this coastal shipping, or coastal transportation. In India, there is no other known cluster of limestone deposits close to the coastline, other than in Gujarat, which has limited the scope of this coastal initiative to the western coast only. The nearest other possibility would be Kadappa plus Krishnapatnam ports system, which has not found much favour due to perhaps the distance of Kadappa from the port. But when it comes to classical inland water transportation of bulk commodities, our country draws a blank so far, with perhaps the small exception of some iron ore transportation by barges in Goa´s backwaters, and some bits of fly ash transported from Kolkata to Bangladesh by barges.
It seems there is a great big opportunity in front of us as a nation to utilise our waterways better, I wish the cement industry to lead this charge. Time is also ripe for this, because currently the government has prioritised on developing waterways and associated infrastructure. Instances of NTPC ferrying imported coal from Haldia to Farakka, and Maruti taking cars from Allahabad/Varanasi to Kolkata, are much like demonstrators, for others to follow suit. Add to this the proposed investments in dredging (for improving navigability) in so called national inland waterways, and building of infrastructure en route, and we may be having a winning case for water transportation. By government pronouncement, the number of National Inland Waterways has gone up from three to six, and another staggering 106 numbers are planned to be notified.
There is a big business case for water transportation. According to the shipping ministry, transportation by waterways would cost 25 paisa per km, while by railways and road it´s Rs 1.50 and Rs 2.50, respectively. In terms of fuel efficiency, too, waterways compare very favourably: one horse power can ferry four tonnes of cargo by waterways, while the equivalent is a meagre 150 kg and 500 kg by road and rail, respectively. Evidently, it costs much less to ferry things on waterways. We shall also be burning much less fuel (or, consuming much less energy) if we opt for water transportation, and this in turn means reduced carbon emission as well. Globally, and also in India, large cement companies are straining to improve their environmental performance, and in doing so, they are looking at all options to bring down their carbon footprint -both direct and indirect. Inbound and outbound logistics activities form a chunky part of indirect carbon footprint of cement as a product, and here, water transportation may greatly be able to help the cement players. We look forward to good health of our inland waterways (read - navigability and infrastructure) so that coal and clinker and cement and fly ash transportation along our waterways becomes commonplace.