Sustainable inland waterways should meet the needs of navigation without compromising the health of riverine ecosystems. Here we proposed a hierarchical model to describe sustainable development of golden inland waterways (GIWs) characterized by great bearing capacity and transport need. Based on datasets from 66 large rivers (basin area > 100,000 km2) worldwide, we identified 34 GIWs, mostly distributed in Asia, Europe, North America, and South America, typically following a three-stage development path from the initial, developing to developed stage. For most GIWs, the exploitation ratio, defined as the ratio of actual to idealized bearing capacity, should be less than 80%, due to ecological considerations. By examining indices of regional development, GIWs exploitation, and riverine ecosystem, we revealed the global diversity and evolution of GIWs sustainability from 2015 to 2050, which highlighted the importance of river-specific strategies for waterway exploitation worldwide.