Nov 22 - 28, 2010

Efficient cargo handling at a port is what makes it distinguished and competitive over others. In the wake of cutthroat competitions among and emergence of varied class of businesses globally, manufacturers and traders who as always prefer seaborne trade for international transportation because of its cost effectiveness are extremely conscious in selection of port services that minimise chances of loss to their shipments. This has driven port administrations around the world to modernise port facilities in a way that can ensure minimal wastages, fast track handling of shipments, and stability of freight and handling charges.

Especially when it is a matter of handling bulk materials like coal, minerals, and grain, the importance of speed, efficiency, and productivity cannot be denied. Seaports in the developed world have reached rather convenient solutions to loading and unloading of products at non-container and shipping terminals.

Two year back when three unmanned cranes were inducted at the Shanghai port—considered the world's busiest in terms of cargo tonnage and shipping tonnage—to embark on the world's first fully automated bulk cargo terminal, the news drew awesome response from the port operators from all over the world who crave for err-free and cost effective handling and discharge of bulk shipments. Typically, only one crane operated from remote central control room boasted of unloading 50 tonnes of material at a time. Annual handling capacity of such a marvellous bulk cargo terminal serving Chinese major steelworks accounts for 37.8 million tonnes.

Making a comparison between port facilities of China and Pakistan will be idiotic and equally preposterous given the gigantic size of Chinese economy. Nevertheless, Chinese port model gives an inspiring lesson for upgrades of port facilities in Pakistan, which has enormous room to improve cargo and shipping tonnage through a shift from conventional system besieged with outdated infrastructure, red tappism in operations, high probability of wastages during loading/unloading and discharges, unnecessary avoidable tariffs, and underdeveloped storage facilities.

According to an estimate, 95 per cent of the total freight trade of Pakistan is seaborne. And therefore, it is not difficult to understand how crucial it is to develop modern port facilities to shore up slow moving economy of Pakistan.

Among three ports in the country, Karachi port that is the premier port of Pakistan handles 14 million tonnes of liquid cargo and 12 million tonnes of dry general cargo including 738,000 TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) containers. This port handles about 75 per cent of the total national trade, followed by Port Qasim another in Karachi and Gwadar in Balochistan which is yet to be fully operational. Gwadar port has the potential to become an alternate to Gulf ports. However, there is dire need of building infrastructure: roads, communication networks supportive to unearth the potential. One bulk cargo terminal that will have handling capacity of 100,000 deadweight tonnage (DWT) is planned in Phase-II of developments at Gwadar Port. If fully operational, the port located at the mouth of Persian Gulf will have transhipment of 25,000 tonnes TEUs in 2010 and 300,000 million tonnes in 2015, according to an official projection.

Successive governments in Pakistan planned to upgrade port facilities in Pakistan, but lack of coordination between government departments hampered the growth in developments. The incumbent ministry of ports and shipping put many efforts towards modernisation and corporatisation of ports and shipping in the country, persuading private sector to come forward with much required investments in modern technology and data base management in order to bring ports' operations in the country at par with international standards.

The ministry of ports and shipping has launched several projects to enhance handling capacity at ports, as per an official document. If implemented successfully, these projects will mitigate the hassles in handling cargo. Karachi International Container Terminal a project worth $75 million dollar with three modern gantry cranes has an annual capacity of 700,000 TEUs.

Government has also invited bids from the private sector for investments in bulk cargo terminal with an offer of provision of quay wall and terminal area. Driven by the ministry's friendly policies, a public-private joint venture has started specialised grain and fertiliser terminal at Port Qasim. Known as Fauji Akbar Portia Marine Terminals Limited (FAP) the joint venture between Fauji Foundation, Akbar Group and National Bank of Pakistan with Portia Management Services Limited (part of the Peel Ports Group, UK) had struck a build, operate, transfer agreement with Port Qasim Authority to establish approximately $135 million terminal.

Though it is not a first dedicated terminal in Pakistan since two other oil and chemical terminals are already operating at the Port Qasim, yet the new terminal is said to be an unprecedented addition to port services in the country with introduction of state-of-the-art technology to expedite cargo handling, improve efficiency, and maintain productivity. The fully automated facility is designed to handle 4.1 million metric tonnes of cargo per annum and able to cater for Panamax size vessels of up to 80,000 deadweight tonnage. In terms of cargo tonnage (total weight of goods loaded and discharged), this terminal is the largest in Pakistan.

Oil terminal at the port is facilitating tankers up to 75,000 deadweight tonnage. Similarly, a dedicated chemical terminal serving liquid chemical imports is also capable of accommodating vessels up to 75,000 deadweight tonnage. Apart from this, there is also a dedicated iron ore and coal berth for Pakistan Steel Mills and is handling raw material imports to cater for 75,000 deadweight tonnage.

Port Qasim is the country's first industrial deep-sea port. The port is well connected to main highways and through which all over the country. Beside cargo handling operations, it has around 12,000 acres industrial lands. Different local and international companies are based there to take advantage of close proximity with the seaport. Industrial clusters inspired by the Japanese successful model of 'keiretsu'—group of companies with interlocking relationships—such as textile city are being established near the port. This port provides transhipment and transit facilities for trade with neighbouring Afghanistan and landlocked central Asian republics. Despite all its merits, Port Qasim with import/export manufacturing undertakings around it lacks competitive port services and modern terminal operators to take shares in trade in Arabian sea. Fully automated services are the conspicuous in absence or very little in practice. FAP's facilities will most likely enhance the quality of port services and above all give a push to corporatisation of ports in the country that are critical to attract private investments in ports and shipping.