GWADAR: A delegation from the Chinese Overseas Port Holding Company is expected to arrive in Pakistan on Monday and visit the site of the new international airport in Gwadar on March 12.

The delegation will inspect the site to eventually begin work on the airport, according to the Director General of the Gwadar Development Authority, Dr Sajjad Hussain Baloch. The construction of the airport would be “completed by the end of this year”, he added.

In February last year, Gwadar port was handed over to the Chinese Overseas Port Holding Company to make it operational. The agreement on the 40-year lease on the project includes construction of an international airport and a four-lane road on the main arterial road of Gwadar.

About 700 metres of construction work on the 50km seafront Gwadar port has been done, according to the Chairman of the Gwadar Port Authority (GPA), Dostain Khan Jamaldini. Of the 50km seafront master plan area, GPA has been able to arrange a seafront of around 21km which is assigned to the port operator (China) for port development on Build Operate and Transfer basis under a 40-year concession. He says that so far “the port consists of 706 metres long multi-purpose terminal and a service berth with a roll-on / roll-off facility.” Simply put, only “0.7 per cent of work on the port has been done since its inception in 2006”.

Despite having an excellent line-up of plans for the port on paper, the infrastructural work on ground is less visible. At the same time, the northern part of the port, making up to 29km of seafront, has not yet been acquired. Officials associated with the project say that apart from six basic policies needed to run the port — such as making Gwadar a special economic zone, introducing labour policies, logistics, ship services and port and industrial development planning among others — water and electricity shortage remains the biggest hurdle in beginning the project on a strong footing.

Construction of international facility will be completed this year, says official

Initial design of the port provided by the National Engineering Services Pakistan in 2000 was approved by the Balochistan government which helped in ensuring one half of the work. However, Jamaldini adds that the design was less worked upon and was later rejected by the federal government.

Phase I of the port which was completed included the construction of the storage area, machinery, vehicles and port-related infrastructure, a multi-purpose terminal, three berths of 200 metres each and a 4.7km pathway. According to official papers, Phase I began in 2002 and it was completed in April 2005, but former officials associated with the project say it was completed by Dec 2006. After completion of Phase I, the government ran a bid on the port in Feb 2007, and later signed a 40-year agreement with the Chinese through their bidder Port of Singapore Authority. The PSA eventually handed over the rights of the port back to the Chinese Overseas Port Holding Company in 2012 without citing any reasons for backing off from the project, officials say.

On May 9, 2006, Arthur D. Little, a consulting firm from the US, Lyon Associates, a construction management from Honolulu, US, and IAC Group completed a 50-year master plan for the port to be completed by 2055.

The plan is extensive and clearly cut out to run a port effectively, but the GPA chairman says that “lack of planning and infrastructure — gas, water and electricity — along with budgetary hurdles are causing delays”.

He says there is no actual timeline of when the project will be completed. Declaring Gwadar a special economic zone for 20 years would be a big shot in the arm to make the project sustainable, he added.

At the moment, construction work to build a four-lane road on the main arterial road in Gwadar is under way. Apart from that, maintenance work, which authorities related to the Public Health Engineering Department say is related to installing water pipelines, is causing an electricity shortage of eight hours daily. Currently, Gwadar receives 14MW from the 70MW coming through a 400km transmission line from Pishin in Iran’s Sestan Baluchestan province bordering Mand, Balochistan. The transmission line goes from Pishin, in Iran, to Mand, Turbat, Pasni, Panjgur and then Gwadar. GDA director general Dr Sajjad says that it is maintenance work near the transmission lines which disturbs the flow of electricity, “otherwise Gwadar faces two to three hours of power shortage”.

Water shortage in the city is totally dependent on making the already initiated, but dormant desalination plant in Karwat, Gwadar, partially functional. At the same time, Dr Sajjad adds that part of the area adjacent to Koh-i-Mahdi known as Mullah Bundh will be categorised as a free trade zone in May which will add to “port’s attraction among investors”.

However, what stands in the way of the mega project is the uncertainty over the timeline of its completion. Showing his concern during a meeting with the GPA chairman on Feb 29, country director Pakistan, Werner E. Liepach said that “Confusion over the groundwork made us visit Gwadar by ourselves and to know exactly what has been accomplished so far.”

Adviser to the Chief Minister of Balochistan, Dr Kaiser Bengali says the “details of the project or the timeline of its completion have not been released”. Even within the government circles, he adds, “broad-level discussions are taking place without getting into the specific details about the share of Pakistan or Balochistan in the income generated by the port”.

Speaking about the Chinese interest in the port, he said: “The Chinese need us and yet Pakistan is accepting and accommodating proposals coming from the Chinese rather than the other way around.”

Citing an example of the Suez Canal and the Panama Canal, he said these ports were controlled by their respective governments and contributing millions of dollars in revenue. “We need to show more sass as we are already managing two ports, and taking care of the third one should not be a problem,” he added.

Published in Dawn, March 7th, 2016