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Since the beginning of its commercial operations, Port Qasim has strictly remained a day-time port

Dec 10 - 16 , 2001

Port Qasim, located some 50 kilometers southeast of Karachi, houses the second deep sea port of Pakistan. Basically developed to handle raw material imports for the Pakistan Steel Mill in its vicinity, Port Qasim now comprises an oil terminal plus a dedicated container handling facilities, Qasim International Container Terminal.

Since the commencement of its operations in 1980 as a commercial port comprising nine berths, Port Qasim has handled over 127 million tonnes of cargoes till last year. It handled over 127 million tonnes of cargo since from 1980 to last year including 10.3 million tonnes cargoes it handled during July 2000 to March 2001. One of its berth, the FOTCO Oil Terminal with capacity to handle 9 million tonnes has been operational since April 1995 and is being developed in the private sector on Built, Own and Operate basis. A Bulk Chemical Terminal developed on Built, Own, Transfer basis in the private sector started functioning in early 1998. More terminals are planned in private sector on BOT basis for handling of LPG, Grain, Fertilizer and Edible Oil.

Proximity to National Highway easing road access to up country away from the Port of Karachi is meant to develop Port Qasim to serve as an additional port to reduce the working at the busy Port of Karachi situated at a fair distance.

However, since the beginning of its commercial operations Port Qasim has strictly remained a day-time port due to absence of night navigation facilities during the last two decades. Announcements to turn Port Qasim in to a 24-hour port by successive governments remained unmaterialised. The sitting government last week announced to facilitate night navigation at Port Qasim within next six months, at least for the smaller vessels.

This has not been the first time that an announcement has been made to make Port Qasim accessible during the night. The announcement has also come at a time when the officials at the highest level of the government has said that Pakistani economy will suffer a loss of $ 2 billion due mainly from reduced exports. Nevertheless, the announcement makes all the sense because Port Qasim handles about 30 per cent of all the country's sea-borne trade, both imports and exports.

Port Qasim developed the first dedicated container terminal four years ago (it received its first vessel in August 1997), a year prior to the one developed at the Port of Karachi. QICT handled a total of 225,000 TEUs during its first 21 months of operation till September 1999. The annual throughput of container movement has been on the increase since the development of dedicated container terminals at both the national ports.

However, it is also feared that the container business which has only be able to grow by a small five per cent per annum over the years may not only be able to maintain even the small growth but may actual decline given the current slowdown of the global economy, particularly in the major markets of the US and EU. As is, foreign trade trend after September, 11 show a steep decline in both imports and exports which differ from sector to sector and commodity to commodity.

While there is enough container business for both the KICT and QICT KICT and QICT have the capacity to handle 300,000 TEUs and 200,000 TEUs in the initial phase respectively the competition for container business between KICT developed by APL, the biggest operator of container business in Pakistan and QICT developed by Maersk, the second biggest container operator, is expected to heat up with less cargoes to be had. QICT signed an agreement with the United Bank for a loan of Rs 400 million to enhance its handling capacity to 320,000 TEUs in early 2000.

The loan was intended to help QICT buy 4 new rubber tyre gantries, ground cargo handling machinery, updating of computer equipment and related civil works. This shows the investment made into Port Qasim which can only offer better returns if the port is accessible 24-hours round the clock. In any case, strictly day-time port hardly makes any sense in the digital world of today where information moves at the speed of light and geographical barriers don't exist any more.

While Port Qasim has been commercially operational for last 21 years, it never has a dredging and port vessels fleet of its own. It has primarily depended on contract dredging and only recently it has placed orders for port vessels with the Karachi Shipyard and Engineering Works. Observers say that Port Qasim has spent millions in contract dredging to properly maintain the required drafts to accommodate heavy container vessels at its berths and the proper maintenance of the channel which is some 40 miles long.

Some four years ago the Port announced to accommodate the night navigation facilities which proved to remain good only on paper.