Three years ago, Bangladesh’s prime seaport Chittagong only saw vessel congestion during the period of budget announcement and Ramadan, but now the problem is continuous.
Veteran seafarers using the port blamed the Chittagong Port Authority’s (CPA) negligence in developing the port’s infrastructure for the alarming crisis which is hurting not only the country’s export-import sector, but also the overall economic development.
Delays in berthing
According to CPA sources, as Chittagong port is a tidal port where vessels can move twice a day, a maximum of about 12 hours is needed for the berthing of a vessel. In contrast, berthing has required more than 120 hours on average during the first 50 days of 2018.
As a tidal port, it is usual for four to five vessels to wait at the outer anchorage. Now on average, 15 vessels sit idly at the outer anchorage and experience delays in berthing schedules.
Inadequate number of jetties is responsible for about 70% of the congestion, while insufficient equipment and the lack of yards account for roughly 20% and 10% of the problem
The ongoing congestion first appeared in mid April 2016 and continued over the year with an average of nine waiting vessels. In 2017, this number rose to 12, according to CPA sources.
No sign of immediate solution
MCC Transport, a sister concern of leading global container operating organization Maersk Line, has served 27 notices to its clients in 2017 describing the trouble they are facing at Chittagong port due to vessel congestion.
By February 21 this year, the agency itself had issues eight notices on the same issue. The latest notice stated: “MCC Transport would like to share the latest situation at Chittagong port. We are still experiencing prolonged waiting times at the port. Low productivity due to high container yard utilization remains the root cause.
“The situation is affecting all carriers operating in Chittagong, with most of the vessels having schedule impacts of up to seven days (168 hours). At this moment, it remains difficult to state with certainty when the current situation will ease.”
Reasons behind the congestion
There is no port anywhere in the world facing vessel congestion like Chittagong port, according to the port’s stakeholders.
Three main reasons have fuelled vessel congestion: an inadequate number of container jetties, insufficient container handling equipment, and a lack of container handling space (container yards).
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According to local journalist Masud Milad, the inadequate number of jetties is responsible for about 70% of the congestion, while insufficient equipment and the lack of yards account for roughly 20% and 10% of the problem respectively.
Sources said not a single container handling jetty has been installed over the last 10 years, while the operational activities of the port have increased by an annual average of 15% to 17%.
At present, there are 12 container jetties at Chittagong port: six at the general cargo berths (main jetty), two at the Chittagong Container Terminal (CTC), and four at the New Mooring Container Terminal (NMCT).
As for the equipment crisis, the port authority has not bought new gantry cranes in the last 11 years.
In 2005, the CPA purchased four gantry cranes of which two have been out of operation since June 25 last year following an accident. This has substantially disrupted container handling operations at the port.
Moreover, no container yard has been added to the port’s infrastructure since the installation of the North Container Yard in 2008.
Nearly 90% of the country’s exporting and importing is done through Chittagong port.
Given the massive vessel congestion at such an important trade route, businesses have claimed they are incurring losses as they have to pay extra charges to shipping companies for having to overstay at the port’s outer anchorage.
Mahbubul Alam, president of the Chittagong Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCCI), said the vessel congestion has been acute for the last eight months and this has led to huge losses for businesses.
“We have to pay $10,000 to $24,000 (depending on the size of the vessel) per additional day a vessel has to wait.”
According to CPA sources, about 90% of the vessels arriving at the port nowadays are container ships and the remaining vessels are also expected to be converted to container vessels very soon.
Hence, the port needs to improve its infrastructure with the vessel congestion in mind within the shortest possible time, said port stakeholders.
“There is no way to solve vessel congestion without increasing the number of container jetties. However, it would take a minimum of three years for the installation of any new jetty. The port authorities should focus on other short-term reform measures including shifting the unloading of containers away from the port’s main yards and building new yards to provide a quick solution of the crisis,” said Masud Milad.
Member for Administration and Planning of CPA Md Zafar Alam told Dhaka Tribune: “During the last fiscal year, we bought 46 pieces of equipment including three rubber-tired gantry cranes (RTGs) for the container handling facilities. We have also planned to purchase 251 units of different equipment this fiscal year.
“We have signed a deal with a Chinese company to buy six gantry cranes at a cost of Tk344 crores for smooth container handling. Hopefully, the gantry cranes will be added to the port’s operation system by this year.
“The CPA has taken steps to implement other infrastructural improvements including installing new container terminals such as the Bay Terminal and Patenga Container Terminal. The vessel congestion problem should be solved soon.”