Although inland waterway transport is traditionally an extremely important economic activity in South America, Asia and Africa, it is frequently conducted under primitive conditions with modern facilities a rarity except at riverheads; even there they may be inadequate. In developed countries, the infrastructure of inland waterways is deteriorating.
The UK inland waterways are narrow and shallow and are being lost to recreational use only.
Major inland rivers have been important transport corridors since prehistoric times, and remain so in many countries today. Navigation on the Rhine, the Main, the Seine and its tributaries, and the Danube system, for example, forms an important component in the freight transport system of Europe. The great potential of the trans-European east-west waterway linking the Black Sea and the North Sea had been recognized as far back as 1920, and its construction, which involved 13 riparian countries, continues. Engineering works have opened the lower reaches of many river systems to small vessels capable of navigation in the coastal seas, while combined barge and ship systems, such as barge-aboard-catamarans or lighter-aboard-ships, have been developed to allow small crafts designed for river traffic to be conveyed across intervening stretches of open sea. The combination of inland waterways and coastal shipping remain an important means of freight transport in Europe, Japan and the USA. In Europe, although total traffic remains steady, international waterborne freight is increasing.