ISLAMABAD: The government has directed the ministry of maritime affairs to make arrangements for creating indigenous capabilities needed to undertake regular maintenance and dredging of ports and fishing harbours to avoid penalties from international shipping lines and other economic losses arising out of non-availability of space for large ships and long waiting hours for smaller cargo vessels.
A government official told Dawn that the directives were issued by the Minister for Planning and Development Ahsan Iqbal at a recent meeting of the Central Development Working Party (CDWP) while clearing the maintenance dredging of Gwadar port.
It took place after more than eight years and that too on the intervention of the Chinese government. It took months for completion of the bidding process and involved cost overruns.
While the CDWP approved the maintenance dredging of navigational channel of Gwadar Port with an escalated cost of Rs4.7bn — a drastic increase from Rs1bn estimated in June last year — to avoid any accident to cargo ships or imposition of penalties from Chinese port operators for business loss, it also directed that a feasibility study be presented within two months for “creating indigenous capability to undertake maintenance dredging requirements of ports and fishing harbours” on an annual basis.
It was reported that maximum siltation occurred in monsoon period that starts in May-June and lasts till September and the project was originally taken in hand without proper survey when the Chinese side raised serious objections.
Maintenance work at Gwadar port undertaken after Chinese complaints
The meeting noted the dredging cost of Karachi port and Port Qasim was roughly Rs 1,500 per cubic metre and the cost of other regional ports ranged between $10 and $12 per cubic metre.
In the case of Gwadar, the contractor had to transport dredging barges from Karachi and staff had to be accommodated in Gwadar’s remote area. Even then ’the unit cost was equivalent to $10 per cubic metre“.
The navigation channel at Gwadar was last cleared in 2014-15, but had since developed sedimentation of clay, sand, mud and gravelly coarse sand at most places. This had caused diversion of bigger ships as the port could handle around 30,000 dead weight tonnage (DWT) ships rather than the designed capacity of allowing 50,000 DWT.
Official sources said the key factor behind the cost escalation was that the Gwadar Port Authority (GPA) and the maritime affairs ministry had developed the dredging project in June last year at a cost of Rs1bn on guesstimates in emergency circumstances when a couple of 50,000DWT cargoes had to be diverted due to navigational challenges.
However, the costs had to be increased on the basis of proper study conducted by Pakistan Navy, followed by competitive bidding. The project is now already under implementation.
The project approved by the government envisaged maintenance dredging of a4.7-kilometre-long navigational channel, basin and berthing area of Gwadar port. Its internal navigational channel and turning basin design depth is 13.8 metres for safe navigation of deep draft vessels and the berthing area and outer channel are dredged up to 14.5 metres to permit safe berthing and sufficient clearance from bottom in low tides.
The channel is designed for navigation of 50,000DWT ships the year round.
Under the fundamental law of the International Maritime Organisation, it is mandatory to keep safe navigation of vessels in ports. The Gwadar Port Authority is required to accomplish its international contractual obligation under clauses of the concession agreement signed with China’s Overseas Ports Holding Company to keep the channel safe, prevent claims and loss in Gwadar port business and to meet the requirements of international shipping market which demands safety of navigation and safe port operations.
The maintenance dredging had already been delayed for a few years. It “could have serious repercussions in terms of penalties and damages” that might have been imposed on GPA by the Chinese concession holder due to loss in business or grounding of ships.
Published in Dawn, March 6th, 2023
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