How to meet challenges to seaborne trade

Md. Rezaul Karim | Published: October 22, 2018 21:18:39

Seaborne trade can be encouraged by improving port facilities and other logistics support. In 2017-18, goods worth US $ 51.53 billion were imported into the country while goods worth of $ 36.66 billion dollars were exported through the ports. The import and export trade has increased by 24.36 per cent over the last five years. At this moment, Bangladesh needs port-centric infrastructure for transport of huge quantity of goods related to foreign trade. Cargoes are now transported through two sea ports, 11 land ports and three airports. The total weight of goods imported and exported during fiscal year 2017-18 was around 116.2 million tonnes in 2017-18. It has been found that around 82 per cent of all cargoes are transported through sea ports. The remaining 18 per cent are carried through land and airports.

As a result, sea routes are most important. The three sea ports in Bangladesh are Chattogram, Mongla and Payra. So far imported goods are delivered at the outer anchorage of Payra port. However, the main infrastructure of the port is still underdeveloped. As a result, the country has to depend on Mongla and Chattogram ports. Due to lack of navigability and absence of proper connectivity with Dhaka, goods export from Mongla has not reached a desirable stage yet. Transport through this port can gain momentum after the Padma Bridge is completed. It has been found that a total of 94.7 million tonnes of goods were transported through these two ports in the last fiscal year. Ninety per cent of the total cargo which is around 85.0 million tonnes was transported alone by Chattogram port while remaining 10 per cent or only 9.70 million tonnes were transported through Mongla.

Import goods like raw materials for the industries and export goods are mainly transported in containers. This system of containerised goods transport began in Bangladesh around 1977. Dependency on the Chattogram port has gradually increased with every year since then. A total of 2.70 million Twenty foot Equivalent Unit or TEU containers were transported through this port in 2017-18. This is 98.43 per cent of the country's total seaborne container transport. Only 42,989 TEUs, which is 1.56 per cent of the total sea-based transport of containers, were transported through Mongla.

The lack of balanced distribution system has resulted in vessel congestion as well as container congestion at the Chattogram port. Construction of new terminal is essential now, considering the ever increasing flow of goods transport. In last fiscal, berthing occupancy of the port jetties was 93 per cent.

In neighbouring India, the share of India's major ports in transport of containerised goods is declining. Construction of new terminals has eased pressure on particular ports there. There are a total of 24 container terminals in India with capacity to handle 27.0 million TEU containers while 15.3 million TEUs of containers were transported in 2017-18. Of the terminals, only APM Terminal, Mumbai and Adani Mundra Terminal handled containers are working beyond their capacity.

Following uncertainty over the Sonadia deep sea port project, the Bangladesh government has recently taken a number of big projects including construction of Payra Deep Sea Port in the southern region, building a deep sea port at Matarbari in Maheshkhali and construction of a new port named Bay Terminal at Patenga in Chattogram. Completion of all the three projects is going to take a significant amount of time.

Many feel that Bay Terminal needs first priority considering the time and hinterland facilities. The proposed Bay Terminal is likely to have very good connectivity through river, road and railways. The other two proposed ports lack such facilities. Since the site of Bay terminal is located outside Chattogram city, the port activities will not hamper life and operations of business and households in the city.

Congestion has already started in Chattogram port. To ease the pressure, Chattogram Port Authority is building a terminal with three jetties at Patenga to face the interim period. Two jetties are also being constructed at Mongla port. But more such jetties will be required even after launching of these two small projects. A change in container delivery procedure is required. The container delivery process can be shifted out of the port.

Hinterland connectivity system is most important for transport of cargoes inside the country. Such connectivity has been developed around Chattogram since a major part of the country's sea-borne foreign trade goods are transported through the Chattogram port. For quite some time in the past, imported goods from Chattogram were transported across the country in small vessels through inland river routes. But river routes were launched very recently for transporting the containerised import goods, after the Pangaon Terminal was constructed in 2013. Container transport through the river route has been gradually increasing since then. Two more private river terminals were launched after Pangaon.

Though containerised goods are transported via the railway, the roadways are preferred more. The major portion of export goods are sent from Dhaka. Only 4.0 per cent of the total export load containers are transported from Dhaka to Chattogram port through railways. The reason behind dependency on the roadway is that the export goods at first need to be sent on covered vans from factories to private container depots. Apart from the river terminal, most of the container depots are located in Chattogram. On the other hand, imported raw materials, following their delivery from the port, are easily transported to the factories on covered vans. The only rail-based inland container depot is in the centre of Dhaka city. But the factories are located outside the city. So, it is difficult to transport the export goods from the factories to the ICD through the traffic congestion of Dhaka city.

The economy of Bangladesh is undergoing structural transformation. So there is no doubt that the growth of industries and services sectors will continue to increase in the future. Therefore, port infrastructure development is required not only for importing raw materials for the production in the economic zones but also for exporting finished goods.

Beside domestic goods transport, demand for goods transport to neighbouring countries like India, Nepal and Bhutan will also increase. This is why the infrastructure needs to be developed efficiently to cope against these problems.

Bangladesh lags behind in terms of logistics or supply chain management in the arena of global trade. It achieved the 100th position in World Bank's latest survey on supply chain management. In this respect, the Shippers' Council has made some suggestions. Firstly, vessels having up to 190 metres length and 9.5 metres draft can be berthed at Chattogram port. The shipping companies can use bigger feeder vessels on this route so as to decrease the dependency on greater number of smaller vessels. At present on average 1,768 TEU containers can be transported on a vessel. Each vessel can transport 2,000 TEU containers, in order to ease vessel congestion.

Secondly, new yards are required to lessen container congestion on the shore side. Congestion at the port yards can be reduced by shifting delivery of containers out of the port. Container handling from the vessels can be expedited by reducing number of containers at the yards. Export containers can be kept at separate yards that will be designated for such export containers.

Third, port operation can be handed over to the private sector. Port is a specialised service sector. Local operators have been operating the container terminals. But privatisation has not been done in this sector yet.

Neighbouring India handed over the responsibility of running the terminals to globally renowned private operators two decades back. Operators like DP World, APM and PSA are operating there. The efficiency of Indian ports has been enhanced. The Bangladesh government can also consider this move. If such a step is taken, local firms can be developed to reach international standards while efficiency in transport of cargo will also be enhanced.

Coordination among various organisations is essential during the stages beginning from the goods delivery from port to the export of goods. A powerful committee should be formed to coordinate the departments.

Md Rezaul Karim is the Chairman of Shippers' Council of Bangladesh.

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