Transport leaders from around the world have called for urgent and concerted action to address systemic vulnerabilities exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused widespread disruption to transport connectivity and supply chains. Gathering for the 83rd session of the UNECE Inland Transport Committee (ITC) – the United Nations’ only regulatory body specializing on road, rail, inland waterway and intermodal transport – transport Ministers and leaders from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East stressed the need to strengthen resilience to future shocks, underscoring that existing regional and international mechanisms for communication and coordination have proved inadequate to ensure a harmonized response under the emergency conditions triggered by the pandemic.
Inland transport – by road, rail and waterway – plays an essential role in the economic and social development of all countries, as well as enabling regional and global cooperation and economic production and distribution of goods. The direct value added by the transport sector to global gross domestic product is about 3–5 per cent, and transport typically provides 5–8 per cent of average national total paid employment.
The high-level debates at ITC were informed by a publication on Sustainable Transport in the Age of COVID-19 -Practices, Initiatives and Responses: Building pandemic-resilient transport systems and a new comparative study of COVID-19-related challenges and emerging trends on inland transport in different regions, which highlighted the sector’s high vulnerability to the global crisis, particularly in the area of cross border transport facilitation. It showed that despite the widely uneven epidemiological and macroeconomic impacts of the pandemic experienced around the world, inland transport emergency responses tended to be uncoordinated and patchwork. This rendered the responses not only less effective but more harmful both epidemiologically and economically.
Uncoordinated border closures and restrictions posed acute challenges worldwide. For example, of 54 African countries, 38 introduced different types of border closures, causing cross-border trade to slow down significantly, while limited comprehension and inconsistent application of COVID-19 measures led to confusion among both truck drivers and border authorities. In Latin America, cases were reported of local authorities closing road access, banning facilities from providing health services to drivers or even prohibiting drivers from leaving their vehicle to eat or to respond to a problem with the cargo. In the Asia-Pacific region, some countries issued new policies on trade and transport regulations without warning or consulting their partners, while others implemented partial or complete lockdown of border-crossing points or introduced new requirements at the borders. In the Middle East and North Africa (UNESCWA) region, data for the period between 4 and 11 June 2020 show that almost 60 per cent of 97 monitored land border crossing points were not operational, and 37 per cent were only partially operational. In the pan-European region, which experienced a rate of COVID-19 cases per 1 million population over three times the global average, fragmented responses contributed to an estimated 20 per cent year on-year decline in turnover in the transport of goods by road compared to 2019.
Additionally, the differing levels of safety and health checks at borders, as well as changes in the amount of time drivers could spend within a country, led to long delays at borders. This not only contributes to delays in the delivery of goods, but also impacts the transport of essential medicals goods and other critical commodities, including the possibility of perishable goods going bad which can exacerbate food crises. For regions that rely heavily on food imports, like the Middle East, for which 90 per cent of grain and 65 per cent of wheat is imported, supply chain disruptions make them especially vulnerable to heightened food insecurity. The lack of agreed inland transport cross-border protocols for pandemics or similar shocks is a critical issue that needs to be addressed by the ITC as part of a worldwide risk management strategy.
The study also finds that having more countries implement the existing United Nations inland transport legal instruments could be an effective addition to the mix of solutions to this emergency. By expanding geographically and further developing the regulatory framework developed through the ITC and its subsidiary bodies, a common baseline across borders could be created which could make syncing responses in an emergency an easier task.
However, there are two challenges to this. First there is relatively low levels of accessions by countries outside the UNECE region. UNECE Executive Secretary Olga Algayerova stated: “I call on all countries to join and apply the provisions of the United Nations Inland Transport Conventions, which offer vital tools to ensure efficient and safe border crossing and transit procedures. I urge all countries to continue facilitating mobility and the flow of goods, in particular essential products, to the maximum extent possible. As the home of UN Inland Transport, UNECE is committed to supporting countries to harness UN instruments and to support cooperation to ensure the resilient transport connectivity needed for a sustainable socioeconomic recovery from the crisis”.
Secondly, there is an urgent need for these legal instruments to accelerate their digitalization in order to make them more accessible and efficient, capitalizing on efforts so far to leverage instruments such as eTIR and eCMR. The eTIR International System ensures paperless, seamless and contactless border crossings operations while keeping the borders open and keeping drivers and customs officers protected from the virus. So far, 16 Contracting parties have officially requested connection to eTIR.
To address the weaknesses exposed by the pandemic and to prepare for future global shocks, ITC endorsed a Ministerial Resolution on “Enhancing resilient inland transport connectivity in emergency situations: an urgent call for concerted action”. It calls for all signatories to take stock of the global emergency under way and commit to taking the actions necessary to reduce uncertainty and increase the predictability and efficient deployment of mutually accepted measures in emergency situations. Among key areas, it enshrines the international community’s decision to “capitalize on the strengths of the Committee, including its convening power and regulatory functions, and its role as the United Nations platform for inland transport to promote concerted national responses and develop urgently needed shared technical knowledge”.
The ITC supports and develops legal instruments such as conventions and international agreements which are considered indispensable for developing efficient, harmonized and integrated, safe and sustainable inland transport systems. This makes the ITC the forum for designing a more effective regulatory framework for a resilient global transport system as part of the recovery.
The high-level segment featured as keynote speaker H.E. Ms. Adina-Ioana Vălean, European Commissioner for Mobility and Transport, who emphasized that “If this crisis came with a valuable lesson to be learned, it would be that we need a more resilient transport system against any future shocks. And we will achieve it only through a long-term strategy and with international collaboration”.