[waw-ter-wey, wot-er-]
waterway, natural or artificial navigable inland body of water, or system of interconnected bodies of water, used for transportation, may include a lake, river, canal, or any combination of these. The existence of waterways has been an important factor in the development of regions, for the waterways have served first as paths of exploration and new settlement and later as avenues of commerce and trade. Although slower than rail, road, and air transport, water shipping is less expensive and accommodates such bulk cargoes as coal, ores, grain, and lumber. Navigation on waterways may be improved by the construction of canals, dams, locks, levees, and dikes; channeling straightens and shortens water courses, and dredging deepens the channel. Waterways vary in size from shallow barge-carrying rivers and canals to the deep seaways that accommodate oceangoing vessels. Waterways are often of international importance, either because they border or run through more than one country or because other nations wish to use them for trade; a number of these waterways have been internationalized. For purposes of navigation, irrigation, and flood control, humans have changed the natural flow of waterways. The consequences of such changes have often led to excessive erosion or an increase in flooding.

A waterway is any navigable body of water. These include rivers, lakes, seas, oceans, and canals. In order for a waterway to be navigable, it must meet several criteria:

  • The waterway must be deep enough to allow the draft depth of the vessels using it;
  • The waterway must be wide enough to allow passage for the beam width of the vessels using it;
  • The waterway must be free of barriers to navigation such as waterfalls and rapids, or have a way around them (such as canal locks);
  • The current of the waterway must be mild enough to allow vessels to make headway.

Vessels using waterways vary from small animal-drawn barges to immense ocean tankers and ocean liners, such as cruise ships.


Canals are waterways that are constructed to provide a new path of travel for vessels (as opposed to improving a natural waterway along its current course). At one time, canals were built mostly for small wooden barges drawn by horses or other draft animals. Today, major canals are built to allow passage of large ocean-going vessels (see Ship canal).

Tidal waterway

A tidal waterway is one open to the sea and far enough downstream (close enough to the sea) to be subject to twice-daily (or daily, depending on the local tides) reversals of flow and variation in depth. Non-tidal waterways are either far enough upstream to be beyond tidal effects, or are separated from the sea or the tidal stretch of the same waterway by a barrier (usually a navigation lock).

In actuality, every body of any liquid on the face of the Earth is subject to tides—even a bird bath. However, only bodies of water susceptible to tidal changes noticeable to humans are included in the customary definition.

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