The Longest Canals in the World

At its most basic, a canal is an artificial trench full of water used for transport, flood control, drainage and irrigation. However they are much more than that. They were primarily built to transport goods around the world and to connect major sea routes to shorten travel times, but where is the largest canal in the world? Let’s find out.

Building Big Engineering
21 February 2023

The longest canals in the world are remarkable feats of engineering and a vital part of our global infrastructure. Some are just a few metres long, others stretch for hundreds or even thousands of kilometres.

The history of canals stretches back significantly further than the canals of the industrial revolution that we’re used to seeing today. In fact, irrigation canals were built in Mesopotamia – modern-day Iraq – around 6,000 years ago, while around 4,300 years ago, canals were built in Egypt to bypass shallow sections of the Nile allowing boats to pass unhindered. Similarly in China between the eighth and fifth centuries BC, some of the world’s biggest canals were built to transport huge amounts of rice and grain around the vast country.

Throughout Europe, Africa and the Americas in the Middle Ages and beyond, transporting goods by canal was cheaper and quicker than overland routes using pack animals. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, canals became more sophisticated, connecting major sea and river routes.

Today, many of the world’s major canals remain vitally important as more and more goods are moved around the globe, while older, smaller canals have largely been given over for recreation. And when it comes to the world’s biggest canals, the contenders for the top spot are truly incredible in their size and scale.

Let’s meander through the longest canals in the world.

Kiel Canal

Kiel Canal (Photo: Santiago Urquijo via Getty Images)

Length: 98 km / 61 miles | Completed: 1895

Linking the North Sea with the Baltic Sea through the northernmost German state of Schleswig-Holstein, the Kiel Canal isn’t the biggest canal in the world, but it is the busiest canal in the world. Every year around 32,000 ships – around 90 per day – navigate its route carrying around 100 million tonnes of goods.

Suez Canal

The Suez Canal (Photo: Tim Martin via Getty Images)

Length: 193 km / 120 miles | Opened: 1869

Perhaps the world’s most famous man-made waterway, the Suez Canal opened in November 1869 after 10 years of construction. It divides Africa and Asia, connecting the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. The Suez Canal reduces the distance from the Arabian Sea to London by almost 9,000 km and is among the longest canals in the world as well as arguably the most important.

Grand Union Canal

Grand Union Canal (Photo: Peter Hambrook / EyeEm via Getty Images)

Length: 220 km / 137 miles | Locks: 158

Running from London to the Midlands passing through rolling countryside, industrial towns and quiet villages, the Grand Union Canal isn’t the biggest canal in the world but it is the longest in Britain. The canal in its present form became operative in 1929 when the owners of the Regent’s Canal and the Grand Junction Canal amalgamated to stay competitive with the rail and road network.

Erie Canal

Erie Canal (Photo: Matt Champlin via Getty Images)

Length: 565 km / 351 miles | Locks: 34

When it opened in the 1820s, Erie Canal in New York State was the second largest canal in the world. It was the first navigable stretch of water connecting the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean and was said to have reduced overland transport costs by as much as 95%. It was known as ‘The Nation’s First Superhighway’, though today it largely caters for tourist boats.

Indira Gandhi Canal

Indira Gandhi Canal (Photo: Frédéric Soltan via Getty Images)

Length: 650 km / 404 miles | Opened: 2005

India’s longest canal and one of the longest canals in the world, the original Rajasthan Canal provides irrigation facilities to an area of around 6,800 square kilometres. It has enabled crops such as mustard, cotton and wheat to grow in a typically arid region of northwestern India.

Karakum Canal

Karakum Canal (Photo: :Alexander Farnsworth via Getty Images)

Length: 1,375 km / 854 miles | Opened: 1988

Completed in 1988, the Karakum Canal in Turkmenistan is one of the longest canals in the world. It runs through the Karakum Desert, among the driest places on Earth, and is one of the planet’s largest desert irrigation projects. Much of its length is navigable and the water irrigates almost 10,000 square kilometres of land planted with crops such as cotton, as well as a further 35,000 square kilometres of open land.

Grand Canal

Grand Canal (Photo: :Wei Wu via Getty Images)

Length: 1,776 km / 1,104 miles | Work started: 486 BC

The world’s longest canal took two thousand years to complete and is said to have involved over six million workers. It connects China’s two main rivers, the Yellow River in the north of the country and the Yangtze River in the south. The earliest sections of the oldest canal in the world date back to the Six Dynasties era but it took almost a thousand years for the various sections to link together. The largest canal in the world has twenty-four locks and sixty bridges.

So there we have it, the world’s longest canals. Each one an incredible feat of construction, engineering and design.


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