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Last edited 19 Jul 2021
The use of waterways as a navigational tool goes back to prehistoric times. They were essential for the transport of people and goods, and the development of early civilisations depended on waterways for military purposes.
It is believed that the Ancient Egyptians were the first civilisation to use maritime vessels, followed by the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans.
During the Industrial Revolution, artificial waterways in the United Kingdom were an essential part of the country’s commercial development. The canal network supported the growth of wealth and industry during the Victorian era and served to finance the rise of the British Empire.
Waterways can be defined as being navigable based on a range of factors:
- Depth. Must be suitable for designated vessels.
- Width. Must have sufficient width to accommodate the beam of approved waterway traffic.
- Accessibility. Must not have obstructions or obstacles that could impede access.
- Current. The natural current of the waterway must not hinder the flow of traffic.
- Wave crest. The average height of waves must not be hazardous to vessels.
In the United States, the definition of the term 'navigable' is dictated by U.S. law. Navigable waterways are used for commercial purposes and are solely meant to transport people and goods. Their oversight is handled by the federal government which can dictate every aspect of navigable waterway usage. This includes who uses the waterways, how the waterways are used and if (and when) the waterways need to be altered.
 Maritime waterways
There are maritime shipping routes (also referred to as sea lanes, sea roads, sea routes or shipping lanes) for large seagoing ships. Oceans, seas and large lakes are the most common types of maritime waterways.
Maritime waterways are generally served by seaports that are sometimes situated inland but are positioned in such a way as to make it possible for large vessels to access them.
The Strait of Dover between the UK and France is the busiest maritime waterway in the world.
 Inland waterways
In 1953, The European Conference of Ministers of Transport established a classification of inland waterways that has been modified to address the development of push-towing. Inland waterways may also be referred to as inland water transport (IWT) systems.
Inland waterways have some disadvantages:
- Availability. There are not numerous inland waterways around the world that are safely navigable.
- Restricted speed. Waterway transport is a slow process (compared to land or air transport). This is even slower in inland waterways.
- Navigation flexibility. Inland waterways have fixed points that are generally not subject to change. Land and air transport can usually be shifted, if necessary.
- Seasonal fluctuations. Extreme weather conditions can have a significant impact on inland waterways. Freezing conditions or droughts can render these waterways impassible.
- Safety. There may be weather related situations where crew members , passengers and goods could be at risk due to unpredictably rough conditions or cold weather.
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