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Clearing the Magdalena River

One of Colombia’s former major transport routes could get a new lease of life as a US$ 1.3 billion project to clear and dredge the Magdalena River gets under way. The contract was awarded to the Navelena consortium, headed by Brazil’s Odebrecht SA.

Just over 900 km of the river between the Port of Barranquilla on the Caribbean coast and the town of Puerto Salgar will be deepened and maintained in the contract, which runs for 13.5 years.

In order to achieve an efficient movement of barge transport, the river will be maintained at a depth of 2.0 meters and a width of 52 meters with a bend radius of at least 900 meters, allowing six barges of 1,200 tons per convoy to navigate safely.

Currently, traffic is limited to small barges navigating a 250 km stretch between Puerto Salgar, near the capital, Bogota, and Barrancabermeja.

Once the project is complete, and traffic can once again reach the Caribbean coast, a fivefold increase in river usage to 10 million tones by 2029 is forecast. Exporters and importers in the interior of Colombia currently rely on truck transport to reach the seaports, with drivers having to deal with excessive congestion, avalanches and poor road infrastructure. Around 220 million tons of cargo is currently carried on the route by road.

The funding comes mainly from Navelena, which will be allowed to charge tolls for seven years after the upgrade. Additional funding is coming from the state-owned Ecopetrol and Impala Terminals, a subsidiary of Swiss commodities trader Trafigura.

The government estimates that transit times between the coast and Bogota will be halved to just six days using a combination of road and river transport. One convoy of barges could transport 7,200 tonnes in one trip. The equivalent by road alone would require 240 trailers. Estimates for savings in logistics costs vary between 30 and 50 per cent.

Predictably, the ambitious project faces opposition from the already struggling road haulage industry as well as from environmentalists.