Project “Ob-Irtysh”

Northern Sea Route (NSR) attracts more and more attention of shipping companies from all over the world. Additional factor for the interest to NSR is an opportunity to get to the Central Asian region via Russian inland waters.

Most people may argue that there are shorter and more economically effective routes to Central Asia.  However, sometimes water transportation is the only way, especially when we are dealing with super heavy oversized cargo, which cannot be delivered by the means of automobile or railroad, because of tunnel and bridge limits.

Thus, in 2016 there were several successful shipments of industrial equipment for oil refineries from Europe and Asia to Kazakhstan and inland Russia through NSR, Ob and Irtysh rivers. Two South Korean companies “SLK KUKBO” and “Pan Ocean” implemented the shipment of petrochemical reactors to Pavlodar (Kazakhstan). The equipment was loaded on chartered in Netherlands ice-class vessel “Happy Dover” in the port of Ulsan (Republic of Korea) on 18th of July and through the NSR it reached the port of Sabetta in the Gulf of Ob (Russian Federation) on 15th of August. This is where the equipment was transhipped on river barges and was shipped to Pavlodar by Russian logistic company “Irtysh Parokhodstvo”. Cargo reached the destination point on the 3rd of October. The equipment with the overall weight of more than 1 000 tones sailed 14 000 kilometers in 2.5 months[1].

Russian companies implemented the same logistic operation by delivering equipment from Saint Petersburg, Volgograd and China for “Gazprom-Neft” oil refinery plant in Omsk (Russian Federation). Petrochemical reactors on the 6th of July were shipped by river barges from the “Volgogradneftemash” plant  and reached Saint Petersburg via river Volga, Ribinskoe reservoir, Onezhskoe and Ladozhskoe lakes. There they were joined with the equipment from Saint Petersburg plants and on 23rd of August by ice-class vessels started its way to the Gulf of Ob through the Gulf of Finland, Baltic, Northern and Norwegian seas and NSR. There, near the place “New Port” (Novyi Port, Russian Federation) the cargo was transshipped on six river barges and shipped through Ob and Irtysh rivers to the city of Omsk (Russian Federation). The equipment reached its destination on 19th of October. In a result, the industrial cargo with the overall wait of more than 6 000 tone sailed 9 000 kilometers in 56 days. At the same time, another part of oil refinery equipment made by Sinopec was delivered from Shanghai (PRC) by the same route[2].

To discharge the equipment special port facilities were built in Omsk and in Pavlodar, which are planned to use further for next logistic operations.

We should mention that for Russia and Kazakhstan this logistic operation wasn’t new. 32 years ago in 1984 there were organized such shipments of oil refinery equipment from Volgograd for Omsk and Pavlodar plants. Though, for the Republic of Korea this experience was new and Korean participants of this operation highly evaluated the perspectives of “NSR – Ob – Irtysh” waterway. For instance, executive director of the “SLK KOKBO” logistic company Subot Choy mentioned that the use of NSR as a new commercial route allows empowering the cooperation between South Korea, Russia and Kazakhstan. In its turn, the representative of the Ministry of maritime affairs and fisheries said that, this transportation project is famous for being testing the different ways of cargo shipments and Republic of Korea plans to use this route further[3].

Of course, these logistic operations were not easy journeys. Most troubles occurred during the process of transshipment from sea vessels to river barges in the Gulf of Ob. The operators had to transship the cargo afloat because of absence of needed port facilities in the Gulf of Ob. And the conditions of Ob and Irtysh river system at the moment didn’t allow the navigation of large sea vessels all the way down to Omsk and Pavlodar. But, after the modernization of infrastructure and building new hydro technical facilities on Ob and Irtysh rivers this route will take its place in “North – South” transportation system and will connect NSR and New Silk Road.

Today Russian government already conducts the work on modernization of “Ob – Irtysh” waterway under the federal program “The development of the transport system of Russian Federation till 2020” and the “Strategy of the inner water transport development till 2030”. According to this official documents the process of renewing of the “Ob – Irtysh” river fleet is going on, building of Krasnogorskyi water-lifting hydrosystem is conducted, port facilities of Salekhard, Khanti-Mansyisk and Omsk cities are enhancing. In addition, the systems of technological communication, navigation management and information support of boat traffic. Till 2020 the creation of the electronic navigation map system for the whole route will be complete. This measures will allow to increase shipments in Ob-Irtysh basin up to 2.4 times, create an opportunity for some classes of sea vessels to navigate in the river, and will increase the boat traffic safety. Additionally in 2018 the process of inner waterways upkeep in Russia will be fully financed from the federal budget, that will enhance the reliability of navigation provision in the river[4].

In addition, we should mention the measures for modernization and creation of new port facilities in the Gulf of Ob. Thus, building of the first stage of Sabetta port will be finished in autumn of 2017. Company “Gazprom Neft” plans to build port facilities near the settlement “New Port” (Novyi Port). As a result the cargo transshipment in the Gulf of Ob will become easier and cheaper. And transshipment disadvantages, as it was mentioned before, is one of the main factors which restrains the development of commercial navigation in “NSR – Ob – Irtysh” route[5].

Today Ob-Irtysh basin is a 14 627 km navigable waterways. The part, which interests us the most, from the outflow of Irtysh river in China to the inflow of Ob river in Kara sea is 5 410 km long and navigable all over to the border with China. Alongside this, the part of the route in the Ob river (around 1 200 km) is naturally deep enough to enable the navigation of sea vessels. The route is under the administration of Federal State Budgetary Institution “Administration of Ob-Irtysh inner waterways basin”, which is within the Federal Agency of maritime and river transport. The navigation in the basin is upkept by 1 500 people and 192 special vessels. The average passenger and cargo flow in Ob-Irtysh transport system is 1 million people and 6 million tones. The route is equipped with checkout stations to define the vessel position at any time[6] given.

Taking into account that substantial part of Ob-Irtysh system (1 700 km of Irtysh river) is situated in Kazakhstan, its role in feasibility of the route is significant. Thus, river Irtysh has 3 big water storage basins in Kazakhstan (Bukhtarminskoe, Ust-Kamenogorskoe and Shulbinskoe) and the lake Zaisan, which can be effectively used to regulate the water level in the river and, as a result, its navigability. Russian-Kazakhstan cooperation on this issue implements according to “Intergovernmental agreement on joint usage and conservation of transboundary water objects” (signed on 7th of September 2010, instead of analogical agreement of 1992), “Agreement on organization of transportation in Irtysh river” (signed in June 2001) and “Enhancing the development of joined database of water resources research” (signed in 1993). The Russian-Kazakhstan commission on joint usage and conservation of transboundary water objects, and its Irtysh division, was established in 1990-s to enhance the management of the river. In addition, countries since 2000 are implementing joint project “Transboundary management of Irtysh river water recourses”. Under this project the building of the second stage of Shulbinskoe water storage basin, modernization of Zaisan lake irrigation system and construction of Krasnogorskyi water-lifting hydrosystem are conducted[7].

It is needed to mention, that the outflow of Irtysh river, under the name Black Irtysh (Eminhe, Dorbiljin), is situated in Sinqian Uighur Autonomous Region (PRC). Though it doesn’t have any big practical meaning in terms of navigation, China has an opportunity to control its flow and, as a result, to influence the water level and navigation in Irtysh river all the way down to Omsk. In this case, it is important to sign a three-side agreement on Irtysh. And China is not eager to do it because of its will do use the waters of Black Irtysh on its own. The existing mutual agreements on usage and conservation of transboundary water objects with Kazakhstan and Russia, which were signed in 2001 and 2008 corresponding, are not meeting the interests of commercial navigation in Irtysh river and are not stopping China from taking away for irrigational needs too much water from Black Irtysh. In its turn, it has significant negative influence on navigation conditions in Ob-Irtysh waterway from Chinese border to the city of Omsk (Russian Federation)[8].

Therefore, “NSR – Ob – Irtysh” waterway has a great potential to become a transport route between Europe, East and South-East Asia on one side and Central Asian Region on the other, especially for the goods, which cannot be or economically ineffective to deliver by railroad or automobile transport. In addition, this route is a good alternative way to deliver hydrocarbon resources from Arctic to Central Asia and energy hungry India. In this context, rivers Ob and Irtysh can become a joint link between NSR and New Silk Road and unite these transport passages into the single transport system.

However, to fulfil this initiative it is highly needed to organize three-sided cooperation between China, Kazakhstan and Russia, in order to create adequate infrastructure and keep the Ob and Irtysh rive in navigable condition. Besides the building of transshipment facilities, which is already implementing by Russian side, it is needed to create a system of hydrotechnical facilities and water storage basins, which will allow to keep depths of 5 meters and deeper along the whole route during the navigation period. The scheme of complex usage of Irtysh river, which was made in 1950-s by Saint-Petersburg department of “Hydroenergoproject”, can be used as a base for the project after its adjustment for present conditions. To implement these plans it is necessary to develop and sign a three-sided agreement based on three main ideas:

  1. Partner countries commit to guaranty the transit depth of Ob-Irtysh waterway (presumptive 5 meters). To do so it is needed to build additional hydrotechnical facilities. That is why, the agreement should also define technical and financial cooperation of participants.
  2. Participants commit to pass over the transboundary cross sections of the rivers Irtysh and Black Irtysh (Eminhe, Dorbiljin) water of determined amount and quality in determined time.
  3. Participants shipping companies have a priority to use Ob-Irtysh waterway[9].

This measures will allow to create continuous deep-water route from China to Arctic Ocean and will provide an opportunity of strait reloading-free water shipments between China, Kazakhstan, East Asia and Northern Europe.

Alexander Voronenko

Consultant of International Association of Economic Interaction “Far East Transbaikalia”

[1] A. Staalesen; The Arctic shipping operation makes it into the history books; The Independent Barents Observer; 25.07.2016; https://thebarents
[2] V. Chernov; Unusual logistics; 08.09.2016;;
Infotech Baltika successfully completed unique delivery of equipment of Gazpromneft-Omsk Refinery; 26.10.2016;
[3] From the further Ocean;;
The trip through seven seas;;
South Korea is testing Northern Sea Route;
[4] Federal program “The development of the transport system of Russian Federation till 2020”; enacted by the Decree of the Government of Russian Federation № 848 on 5th of December 2001;;
Strategy of the inner water transport development till 2030; enacted by the Decree of the Government of Russian Federation №327-р on 29th of February 2016;;

  1. Tukish; Main thing is to determine the priorities; Ob-Irtysh vodnik № 6, 26.07.2016 p. 1-2; Omsk 2016;

[5] Construction of Seaport Facilities Near the Town of Sabetta;;
Project “New Port”;;
[6] Federal State Budgetary Institution “Administration of Ob-Irtysh inner waterways basin” official page;
[7] Intergovernmental agreements on joint usage and conservation of transboundary water objects

  1. Kostarev. Transboundary management of Irtysh river water recourses.

[8] K. Murtashina. International legal aspects of the cooperation between Russia, Kazakhstan and China on usage of Irtysh river waters. Russian legal journal. №13
[9] L. Kozlov, A. Belyakov. Ob-Irtysh deep-water way from China to Northern Sea Route as a part of Energy and Transportation water system of Eurasia. Eurasian economic integration, №3 (4), 2009. p. 132-143

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