Durban plans to stay ahead

Dec 23, 2002
Author: P&S

The port of Durban was seldom out of the news for long during 2002, often on the basis of being found wanting in terms of productivity.
Judged on the rate of how long it takes a ship to enter port and complete discharging or loading cargo, Durban, together with the other SA ports frequently failed to come up to international standards, particularly when there were increases in port traffic.

But is hasn't always been the fault of port operators. Trade Union movements were quick to capitalise on the fact that action taken against the Durban Container Terminal (DCT) has the greatest effect in focusing attention on their grievance against the government's privatisation programme. Subsequent strikes in 2001 and 2002 severely delayed operations at the terminal for weeks at a time.

The continued phenomenal growth of container traffic in recent years caught the port authority, operators and shipping lines with their pants down, but whereas shipping lines are able to react quickly by chartering in additional tonnage, port authorities and operators have to act more circumspectly and face lengthy delays in acquiring additional infrastructure such as gantry cranes and straddle carriers.

Nevertheless, it was surely a bad decision by SA Port Operations (SAPO) to cancel the order for four new gantry cranes and thirty straddle carriers intended for the Pier One container terminal extension.

Although this was done on the basis that a future concessionaire might choose to other types of equipment, thus making the new purchases redundant, the decision would seem to be both mistaken and short sighted and will certainly cost the port dearly the next time ships begin queuing outside. New equipment such as gantry cranes and straddle carriers can be transferred easily to other ports should a future DCT concessionaire decide they were surplus to their requirements.

Nevertheless the decision by the National Ports Authority (NPA) to begin widening the port entrance during 2005, which was announced at a client and media seminar held in Durban on 9 and 10 December 2002, has been generally welcomed. Once widened by a further 100m and deepened to modern ship handling standards, Durban would be capable of accepting the largest container ships currently in service including those of 6,500TEU in size.
This is the first practical assurance that Durban can look forward to a long-term future as the sub-continent's major container handling port and is welcome.

Good news such as this usually comes with riders - and so far the only one is that Capex approval is necessary. But according to the NPA, plans are going ahead and affected tenants at the Point such as the popular pubs and restaurants at the Point have already received their required 24-month notice, and it seems that the NPA is confident of the project going ahead.

Having large container (and other) ships with draughts of up to 14.5m means also that additional dredging will be necessary within the port as well as the provision of suitable berths. According to the NPA new deepwater container berths will be provided at the container terminal at 206/207 with all channels and turning basins being dredged accordingly.

Other plans include the rebuilding of deep water berths alongside Maydon Wharf.

But the job of ensuring that Durban remains viable as a container terminal will go further than a wider and deeper port entrance. Fortunately the port is in a position to extend the volume of containers handled by improving productivity (Durban currently works containers at an average rate of about 16 container moves per crane per hour, compared to an international norm that is much higher), and by introducing different methods of cargo working.

This includes increasing the stack space through vertical growth, with containers stacked higher than at present, as is done in many other ports.

Another option is the takeover and conversion of Salisbury Island, which is perhaps the most logical step, which offers huge potential for future growth. The SA Navy's downgrading of Salisbury Island from a naval base to a naval station can only have helped this hypothesis.

But the port doesn't end in the direction of Salisbury Island. With the development in the west of berths 206 and 207 on the existing terminal and the planned deepening of the Maydon channel, the Bayhead area opens up to its potential as a future growth area, always provided no long-term development is allowed to take place there in the interim.

During 1995 various studies were considered which included turning this area into a container terminal, which made far more sense than the subsequent attention and excitement given to a new dig-out port at Isipingo.

The largely unused marshalling yards southwest of Bayhead Road lie on the original flood plain of several rivers, and although considerable civil engineering would be required, this is no more than what is envisaged for Richards Bay or at Coega (or for that matter what the Dutch are doing with the Maasvlakte in The Netherlands).

Such development would not have to impact drastically on the important ship repair industry or on the environmentally sensitive mangrove swamps nearby. The Silt Canal could be enlarged without any real effect on either.

The port of Durban has been Transnet's cash cow, and a major employer and provider of revenue to Durban for many years, which adds to the reason why both the container terminal and the port cannot be allowed to suffer at the expense of others, no matter how politically expedient those others may be.

Stories given out, particularly to the media, that the growth potential of Durban is limited are misleading and mischievous. Durban has been Africa's premier port for about a century and has the potential of remaining so for many more to come.

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