Durban – the port that needs to expand part 2

Nov 4, 2006
Author: Terry Hutson

One of the hot points of discussion relating to port matters at Durban, Africa’s busiest harbour, is whether there is a need for a second port to be excavated from the soils of the present Durban International Airport.

The Durban International Airport, a mere 12 minutes by road from the centre of the city, is due to be relocated by the first quarter of 2010 and the site, close to the ocean and obviously on flat ground, is seen by many as an ideal candidate for a new deep water harbour

And while the Airports Company of South Africa (ACSA) owns both airport sites (the new airport will be built to the north of Durban at La Mercy), it has not given any indication of what it will do with existing Durban International Airport (DIA) when it moves.

However it is taken for granted that the existing site will become available for development, hence the debate over its future use.

DIA has become one of the prime pieces of real estate in an expanding Durban. The airport is situated between the N-2 freeway and the Indian Ocean, bounded in the northeast by the Umlaas River and by the Prospecton industrial site in the southwest, with the Sapref Refinery (Shell and BP) occupying the immediate east or coastal boundary. Opposite this and a short distance off the coast is the single buoy mooring (SBM), through which most of South Africa’s oil is imported.

DIA was developed for its current purpose in the mid 1950s, replacing the then Durban Airport at Stamford Hill. The ‘new’ airport was previously under sugar cane although a corner of the land was used as a military airport during World War II. As the area formed an historic flood plain for the Umlaas River on the northeast and the Isipingo River to the south, it is naturally flat and therefore ideal for airport use.

For this same reason and also because it is so close to the sea it is now argued that it should be excavated to become a new deep water port in answer to Durban’s growing demand for ever larger ships and an exploding container growth. And of course the close proximity of the refineries has not gone unnoticed – with a deepwater port there would be no further need for a SBM outside.

The proposal calls for an area of DIA roughly paralleling the present runway to be excavated for a deepwater harbour basin, with access to the sea on the Prospecton end approximately opposite the offshore Single Buoy Mooring (SBM).

The new harbour would permit very large crude carriers (VLCC) to use the port and discharge cargo directly into tanks instead of making use of an offshore facility. The harbour could also be used to cater for motor vehicle imports and exports, although its main purpose is seen for container handling. Container stacking areas (the terminal) would be created on both sides of the new basin.

Interestingly a story has surfaced - perhaps only a rumour but worth placing in the pot for consideration – which suggests that Toyota, South Africa’s largest motor manufacturer situated immediately adjacent to the proposed site, might want to develop its own harbour facility here if no-one else does.

The options for this valuable site are many and varied. It lies close to one of the country’s largest manufacturing nodes, well serviced with roads and rail and also in close proximity to the existing Durban harbour. Skilled and non-skilled labour in the area is plentiful, all going towards making this one of the prime pieces of industrial land coming available for redevelopment.

With the discussion now highly pertinent, a number of people holding strong interests in the future use of the airport site were approached for their opinion.

Click image to enlarge. The Port of Durban with the Island View extension outlined in red (in centre of pic) and in the top distance is the present Durban International Airport (indicated), currently under consideration as a future dig-out port. Picture courtesy NPA

“It’s seldom that you get a piece of land so large and so suitable…”

Pat Raw is the most recent former port engineer of Durban, and as it happens, one of the people who dusted off some very old proposals and took them forward in the mid 1990s when a rapidly expanding economy made it clear that the present Durban container terminal simply wasn’t coping.

“The idea is not new – it goes back to Cathcart Methven (port engineer 1888-1895) who saw an extension to Durban Bay by means of canals leading along what is now Clairwood and Jacobs. Methven was a visionary who had quite an effect on the port,” says Raw.

Raw and fellow port engineer Dorian Bilse undertook a survey along the coast looking for suitable port facilities within a 50km distance of Durban, both north and south and including Umkomaas. He says they found nothing as good as that at the airport site.

Pat Raw, former Port Engineer at Durban

“The attraction of the airport site is that it is low lying and the Umlaas River is already canalised. We came up with a concept for a large port with an 18m draught and between 12 and 14 berths suitable for large ships. Any development there would mean the re-location of the SBM and therefore we’d bring the tankers inside, and this we were able to do with the advantage that they could discharge the oil right next to the refinery.

“It’s seldom that you get a piece of land so large and so suitable – it’s an opportunity that decision makers need to take into account.”

Raw pointed out that in 1996 Durban was faced with a burgeoning container business and growth in the region of 20 percent compared with international growth of about 8 percent. Added to that was that Durban is a mature port with little room for expansion.

In his opinion the alternative of digging out part of the Bayhead area would simply be one of buying a little time. He pointed out that Bayhead also had its problems, with road congestion perhaps the major one.

“It hardly copes now. I’m not a traffic expert but my gut feel s that it would battle to cope with increased traffic levels brought about by expanding the Bayhead for containers.”

He said it would take about three years to build a dig out port on the airport site. “Ten years ago we estimated it would cost R4 Billion for its construction.”

Asked about Richards Bay as an alternative Raw said it definitely has the space but the major problem is a lack of road and rail infrastructure leading to the main market in Gauteng. “The existing railway was built for coal and it would not be good policy to mix the traffic too much.”

Turning to the administration of twin ports for Durban he said they could easily be administered as one with a saving in economies. There were other issues such as the littoral sand movement outside the port entrance but this could be managed as is being done with Durban, Richards Bay and Coega. Regarding the urban area surrounding the port he thought a harbour was more beneficial for nearby suburbs than if it became a petro-chemical cluster area. He believes a new port in the area would bring greater prosperity to the area.

”A one-off opportunity that cannot be missed”

Alex Hamilton is a man who has long been a proponent of the dig out port. Now a property developer with the Windermere Holdings Group and with a background in construction and politics, he is well versed to recognise value in a development.

“You can’t expect a return on such an investment for at least 10 years,” he says. “The dig out port would be a 50 – 100 year project. The price to build a new port there would be high but I think the airport dig out option is a one-off opportunity that cannot be missed.”

He points out that in 1880 the then Colony of Natal spent £ 6 million to join its railway with that of the Transvaal to earn £ 1 million in revenue. “People had foresight in those days and we must not be seen to lack it now.”

Hamilton says that the KZN provincial government has already passed unilaterally an agreement to spend R570 million on buying the airport site, payable over three years.

Describing the development of a new port at Coega as an ‘economic crime’ he says KZN possesses the best transport system in the country, the best roads and the best rail. “We need to take what is already excellent and improve on it. For anyone living here with South Africa’s interests at heart then they have to ensure that Durban is not downgraded into a minor port at the expense of something like Coega.”

Turning to Richards Bay as an option for future port development Hamilton warns of trying to create two hub ports in close proximity on the coast, in which case Durban would inevitably go into a slow decline and stagnation. “The extent of this economic decline cannot be measured or even estimated with any accuracy,” he says.

Major challenge facing Durban is with its container growth

Durban’s port manager Basil Ndlovu places a different light on matters. He also has the advantage of being closer to the thinking and planning that is going into the redevelopment of Durban as a port.

“We’re examining all the issues concerning Durban,” he told Ports & Ships. “We are looking at all the various options and as far as the Bayhead dig out is concerned, I must emphasise up front that it is not our idea that the existing ship repair must pack up and relocate to Richards Bay.

Basil Ndlovu, Port Manager of Durban

For example, our ideas on a dig out in the Bayhead area means there will be two additional berths available that could be used for ship repair – that is one option.”
Ndlovu says the major challenge facing Durban is with its container growth. “The international trend is 8 percent – here in Durban it is double that at 16 percent. But the National Ports Authority wants to be proactive, not reactive to these challenges.

“Therefore we’re looking at creating a new container terminal at Richards Bay and will also have one at Coega which will assist Durban, perhaps helping to keep Durban’s growth within the level of 8 percent.”

The NPA intends handing over Pier 1 Container Terminal to SA Ports Operations (SAPO) as a going concern by 2008. “By then we need to have completed our studies into the dig out options. The problem is that by 2010 we’ll have also run out of capacity at Durban, so therefore Richards Bay is going to have to grow concurrently while Coega will come into service by 2009.

“It’s also true that market forces will determine where our future container growth is going to be. We’re very aware that by 2010 DIA becomes available and that is also another option.”

Ndlovu revealed for the first time that the NPA is considering other ways of expanding Durban’s capacity. One of these involves extending the waterway at Island View in the direction of King’s Rest marshalling yard and creating a new ‘face’ to the Pier 1 and Durban Container Terminals, creating additional berths on the new southern side. This would however require the relocation of some of the liquid bulk storage tanks to the DIA site and therefore a renegotiation of certain leases.

Click image to enlarge. The area outlined in red is the proposed Island View excavation, designed to provide additional berths at the back of Pier 1 Container Terminal. The latter is the area shaded in brown. Image courtesy NPA

He suggests that the DIA site could also be utilised more as a ‘back of port’ function rather than as a dig out option, which he says will be determined by growth volumes and whether Richards Bay and Coega can absorb some of this volume from Durban.

“We don’t have a choice”

Another option that is being keenly pursued by the NPA involves the development of an ‘inland dry port’ at Cato Ridge or some other site, although Cato Ridge is currently favoured. This would require all export containers from outside the Durban area having to go first to Cato Ridge where they would be assembled ahead of the relevant ship. A shuttle train operation would then deliver the containers to the container terminals on a ‘just in time‘ basis, eliminating much of the road congestion now being experienced within Durban and a lot of the stack capacity problems at the Durban Container Terminals.

Similarly import containers for destinations other than Durban would be shuttled by rail from the port to Cato Ridge from where they would be either railed or road hauled to their final destination.

The inland terminal would provide truck stop facilities for road hauliers, including repair and maintenance of the trucks (much of which now takes part on Durban’s streets). The terminal would also have container stuffing and unloading facilities (Groupage) for LCL boxes (less than a container load) as well as Customs offices for inspection, scanning etc.

The Cato Ridge project would include not only containers but breakbulk, liquid and bulk cargo as well, with the facility acting as a truck stop for road-hauled bulk cargo destined for the port.

Ndlovu says the NPA has looked at similar processes in use at Rio de Janeiro and elsewhere. “In Rio they don’t allow heavy trucks in the inner city but here we can’t simply ban them. We have to provide an alternative.”

He said the various stakeholders – the local community at Cato Ridge operating as Tembi Projects, Transnet and the NPA, the eThekwini Municipality, the roads department etc had formed a working committee to move the project forward, under the chairmanship of city manager Dr Mike Sutcliffe.

Asked how likely it was for the Cato Ridge option to happen, Ndlovu’s answer was short and to the point.

“We don’t have a choice,” he said.

Regarding the future use of the airport site (DIA) Ndlovu said that Transnet was interested in acquiring the land from ACSA but not necessarily to build a new port on it immediately – although that may come later, he said.

“We have to plan for this and take into account its future use, so the object would be to secure the land in case we want to build there later. Therefore there’ll be no very long-term leases for its use.”

He said the NPA was keen to see the liquid bulk industry relocate some of its activities from Island View to DIA. “The NPA wants a structured development. In the same way the Trust that owns the land at Cato Ridge wants to develop in partnership with an anchor tenant and that’s where the NPA comes in. But other roleplayers will have to make decisions about future access by road into the city, such as creating a system of permit holders.

“A dig out port at the DIA will be an expensive option. Digging out part of Bayhead is less expensive. Just to build a single new breakwater at Durban is costing us R1.7 Billion – we’d need two at DIA and then there are excavation costs and the construction of new quay walls. At Richards Bay and at Coega we already have the infrastructure and must optimise their use first but at no stage are we ruling out the airport site as a future option.”

The last word in this debate rests with Alex Hamilton. “This (the dig out port) is a once off opportunity the economic importance of which to both the Metropole and Province cannot be exaggerated.”

Click image to enlarge. A typical late afternoon scene in Durban Harbour as a ship works containers at the Durban Container Terminal. Today the terminal is well equipped with gantry cranes and other infrastructure and plans are afoot to increase capacity at the port. Durban certainly has a long way to go before its final sunset as a working harbour.



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