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Ports and shipping: a historical perspective

The history of use of waterborne vessels is as old as humans. Research has found the use of boats as early as 4000 BC. Now the 90 percent of world trade is being done through international shipping industry. Shipping is the life force for the global economy and with it the intercontinental trade, the bulk transport of raw materials, and the import/export of affordable food and manufactured goods would simply not be possible.

It is estimated that around the globe more 53,000 merchant ships are transporting every kind of cargo, out of which 11,000 are bulk carriers. The world fleet is registered in over 150 nations and operated by over a million seafarers of every nationality. The seaborne trade is continuously expanding hence bringing benefits for consumers across the world through competitive freight costs. The modern ships are technically very sophisticated. A hi-tech vessel can cost around US $200 million to build. The operation of merchant ships is generating the annual income, through freight rates, is well over half a trillion US dollars.

In January 2018, the world fleet reached a carrying capacity of 1.9 billion dead-weight tons (dwt), 62 million dwt more than in the previous year. Over recent years, tonnage has increased considerably in all segments except general cargo carriers.

The top five ship owning economies together account for 50 percent of world fleet tonnage. Greece has expanded its lead, adding 21 million dwt in 2017 to reach a market share of 17 percent, followed by Japan, China, Germany, and the Republic of Korea.

The three leading flags of registration are of economies that are not major ship owners, i.e. Panama, the Marshall Islands and Liberia followed by Hong Kong and Singapore. Over 90 percent of shipbuilding in 2017 occurred in China, the Republic of Korea and Japan.

The maritime history of Indian subcontinent begins during the 3rd millennium BC when the inhabitants of the Indus Valley initiated maritime trading contact with western Asia.

The oldest port in Indian subcontinent is 4500 years old. It was in and around the Bhal region of Indian Gujarat.

At the time of independence the only operational port of Pakistan was Karachi Port. The existence of Karachi Port dates back to eighteenth century when Alexander, the great, ended his campaign along the Punjab Rivers and Indus. The name of Karachi pertains to the year 1742. Charles Mason wrote in 1830 that port had 100 vessels of all kinds. The port of Karachi was totally undeveloped. There were no wharves, no dockyards, no jetties and no other facilities of a modern port. Harbour situated then on the western side of the island of Keamari between the main land of Karachi and Manora. A channel was known as the Chinna Creek. Another channel, which used to flow from Keamari to Customs House Channel was shallow, so small boats were used. Large vessels were unable to enter the harbour because of the rocky/sand bar entrance near Manora. At the end of 1839, there were 28 boats at the port of Karachi and tonnage range was from 50 to 150 each. Karachi Port served as the principle channel for the sea borne trade of vast hinterland. There was only one competitor port of Sonmiani on the Makran Coast.

After the conquest of Sindh in 1843, the next seventeen years were utilized to make Karachi a commercial cum trade hub. Sir Charles Napier floated the idea of Karachi as a free port. He brought several improvements like widening the entrance of harbour construction of Docks to connect the Keamari with the town of Karachi through mole to build timber pier. In 1854 the mole connecting the town was completed and was named Napier Mole. In the late British period, due to the Civil War in United States of America, Cotton export affected badly. This caused a boom in export from Karachi Port. In 1862 till 1865, as the opening of Suez Canal, Karachi Port came nearer to Europe and flourished rapidly. The construction of Keamari was completed in 1863.

In 1886, the Karachi Port Trust was passed by Bombay Legislative Council and under this Act; KPT was set up in 1887.

By the end 1910 Karachi Port boasted to 17 berths in one continuous line extending more than 2.5 km, served with railway sidings and equipped with hydraulic floating cranes. At the same time, maintenance and refurbishment of the older wharves was carried out as was dredging by the bucket dredger “William Price” newly acquired to deal with the problem of siltation.


With the development of the North Western Railways, Karachi Port became an established gateway for the agricultural produce of the country. Whereas in 1895, the total sea-borne trade was worth 156.8 million rupees and by 1900 wheat exports alone were 60% per annum that rose to 80% in 1901. First bulk oil jetty was built in 1909 linked with storage tanks of oil companies through separate pipelines.

That same year the powerful new light on Manora Light House was installed flashing warning signs upto 30 km in clear visibility.

During the First World War, 1914-1918, Karachi Port, by virtue of its strategic location, was called upon to play a significant role and by now it was fully equipped to deal with the logistics of moving ammunition, equipment and troops. Currently Karachi Port has a 11.5 km long, 12.2 m deep channel. It has 30 dry cargo berths, 13 berths on West Wharves, 17 berths on East Wharves and 3 liquid cargo berths for POL & Non-POL products. This makes a grand total of 33 berths. The port has two container terminals namely, Karachi International Container Terminal (KICT) and Pakistan International Container Terminal (PICT), both have been established by the private sector on BOT basis. The port provides round the clock safe navigation for all vessels including modern container ships and tankers up to 75,000 DWT. The port facilities are very well backed up with goods transit and storage areas, with rail and road services for handling, storage and clearance of cargo.

The second Port of Karachi is Port Qasim is 28 nautical mile from Karachi Port. It is comprises of two multi-purpose berths of 400 meters each, design capacity of 6 to 7 million tons annually. The port can handle ships of 225m of length and 10m of dept. The berths can handle all types of cargo. The Qasim International Terminal has total area of 240,000 sq. meters and has a capacity of 0.85 million TUUs annually. It can handle ships up to 300 meters of length.

Gwadar Port is located 533 km from Karachi Port. It is 120 km from the Iranian border and 380 km from Oman. The greater surrounding region is home to around two-thirds of the world’s proven oil reserves.

Gwadar Port holds great strategic and economic significance for Pakistan. It can act as an international trade hub for Pakistan. Gwadar port would connect three regions, i.e. Central Asia, South Asia and Middle East. It would open new job opportunities and help in the development of Balochistan. Pakistan would be able to explore minerals, hydrocarbons, oil and gas resources of CARs. The port will attract foreign investment and tourism. It would provide foreign reserves and free trade zones and special economic zones (SEZ) that would help in the economic prosperity of Balochistan and Pakistan. It would help to increase Pakistan’s trade and commercial activities particularly in Balochistan province, so provincial grievances will be addressed.

Ormara is a small port on the Makran coastline alongside the Arabian Sea in Balochistan, province of Pakistan. It’s situated around 450 kilometers west of Karachi. The Jinnah naval base of Pakistan Navy is also located at Ormara.

Pasni is a medium-sized city and a fishing port in alongside the Makran coastline Balochistan, Pakistan. It is located about 300 km from Karachi. The government has now decided to develop the port of Pasni as a full-time commercial port for Pakistan along with CPEC to help the cargo activities in the area. Jiwani is still a small fishing harbour, but it holds a strong strategic significance within the vicinity, located instantly adjoining to the delivery lanes to and from the Persian Gulf at the moment but now Gwadar port will cover all those factors.

The writer, Mr. Nazir Ahmed Shaikh is a freelance columnist and is an educationist by profession. Currently he is associated with SZABIST as Registrar and could be reached nazir.ahmed@szabist.edu.pk.

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