Establishment of a deep sea port (DSP) has become strategically very critical for Bangladesh considering its potential impact on the accelerated development and economic growth of the country. Such a port will allow the country to reap the benefit of connectivity that China's One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative offers. In this respect the proposal to construct a deep sea port at Sonadia deserves special attention.
The economic history of maritime powers, such as Britain, Spain, Portugal, China, Japan, Singapore and Rotterdam, etc., clearly demonstrates the significant and critical role which the deep sea ports have played in the development of their economies.
THE EXISTING PORT FACILITIES
Chittagong Port: Built in 1887 near the Karnaphuli River, 16 Km upstream of the Bay of Bengal, Chittagong Port (CP) is an integral part of the sub-regional transport and logistics chain. CP plays a pivotal role in achieving sustainable economic growth through facilitating international trade.
The average size of container vessels serving the Chittagong port is 2500 TEUs to 3000 TEUs having draft of 9.1 metres (more modernised sea ports are found handling container vessels of 5000-18,000 TEUs). In 2016, Chittagong Port handled 2.346 million twenty-feet equivalent units (TEUs) of containers having 51.38 million tons (MT) of cargo and in 2015, 2.024 million TEUs of containers having more than 50 million tons of cargo. It is apprehended that there will be three-fold rise in container traffic in the next 15 years. The expected figures are 2.7 million TEUs in 2020 and 5.4 million TEUs in 2040. This rapid growth of international trade would necessitate the establishment of a deep sea port at a suitable location in the Bay of Bengal to handle high-draft larger vessels for transportation of goods directly to different countries.
Bay Terminal: It has been envisaged to construction a 'Bay Terminal' at Patenga coast on an area of 900 acres of land behind the Chittagong Export Processing Zone (CEPZ). This woould allow big ships, which are longer than 190 meters and have draft of more than 9.5 meters, to berth and carry out other activities. Mother vessels with up to 5000 TEUs will be able to anchor there.
Mongla Port: It is situated about 69 nautical miles from the Pashur river mouth. The maximum permissible draft of the vessels that can enter the port jetties varies between 7.0m and 8.5m depending on the tide and weather conditions and there is a length restriction of up to 225m. This port also cannot handle larger container vessels.
The deep-draft vessels cannot enter into the Chittagong Port as well as the Mongla Port and are lightered at the outer anchorage in the Bay that causes higher freight rates and low productivity of our sea-borne trade. Hence, it is essential to establish a deep sea port for handling vessels with deeper draft and longer length to reduce freight cost and discharge time.
Moreover, in the absence of appropriate deep sea port and inaccessibility of large vessels to either Chittagong or Mongla port, all exports and imports are carried out through transshipment from the Singapore port incurring high transportation cost and delayed shipment.
Matarbari Port: Construction of a deep sea port, terminal for liquefied natural gas (LNG), four 600MW coal-fed power plants, along with communication network such as rail lines and, roadways, is underway at Matarbari, about 25 Km from the Sonadia island. The daily requirement of coal will be over 60,000 tonnes and should obviously be imported by 'Handymax' or 'Supramax'-sized vessels drawing 12-15 meters draft.
INITIATIVES OF INDIA AND MYANMAR
Sittwe Port, Myanmar: The Sittwe port in Rakhine Province of Myanmar can at present handle vessels of up to 2,000-3,000 tonnes of deadweight tonnage (DWT). The port will be further developed to handle vessels up to 4,000-6,000 tonnes dwt which are considered as coastal vessels with very limited capability and cannot be deployed in worldwide international trade.
The Indian government concluded an agreement with Myanmar for the implementation of Kaladam-Multi Modal Transit Transport Project which envisages linking Lawngtlai in India's northeastern state of Mizoram via a road and the River Kaladam to the deep sea port at Sittwe. Thus international trade of the seven landlocked states of India still have to be carried out through Kolkata port by traversing over 800 extra kilometers (539km sea + 225km river + 62km road) of extra distance.
However, the distance from landlocked states of India to the proposed deep sea port in Sonadia, if and when established, will be less than one quarter of the distance to Kolkata and will always remain as the first economic option for their international trade.
Kyaukphyu Port: Myanmar entered into an agreement with China to build a deep sea port and a special economic zone at Kyaukphyu, western coastal Rakhine state, 100 Km south of Sittwe port, and a railway network between Yunnan-Kyaukphyu to facilitate transit trade through the country. But due to public resistance, this project is yet to be implemented. China has already implemented an oil pipe line project between Kyaukphyu and Yunnan province of China. About 450,000 barrels of crude oil will be sent to China per year.
A deep sea port in Kyaukphyu may serve as an alternative port to overcome the limitations of the Yangon port of Myanmar but can hardly affect the geographical advantage of deep sea port at Sonadia.
Dawei Deep Sea Port: The governments of Myanmar and Thailand signed an agreement to develop another deep sea port in Dawei and a connecting road and rail link to Bangkok as well as oil and gas pipeline from the Gulf of Martaban to the Myanmar/ Thailand border. These two deep sea ports will have very little effect on the proposed deep sea port at Sonadia.
Deep sea port near Kolkata port: Both Kolkata and Haldia ports suffer from chronic siltation of the Hooghly river. To resolve this problem, India has a plan to develop a deep sea port, 145 kilometres south from Kolkata city, reclaiming land from the sea, to handle large-sized container vessels.
Port at Diamond Harbor: Another port at Diamond Harbor, located at the eastern bank of Hooghly River between Kolkata and Haldia is under study. Due to low draft of the river, this port will have limitations as a hub port for serving the landlocked states of India, Nepal, China and Myanmar.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR BANGLADESH: The above-mentioned ongoing initiatives and activities clearly demonstrate that the present and proposed port developments in the region will not have much significant effect on the proposed deep sea port at Sonadia in Bangladesh.
A narrow deep strip of the Bay with a natural depth of 14m has protruded close to the Sonadia Island (nine square miles), south-east of Bangladesh. This is the deepest point of the Bay to approach land. Moreover, topographical condition of the sea bottom area has been stable for more than 100 years and is hydraulically balanced. The area may be considered as a gift of nature to Bangladesh. Utilising this rare opportunity, Bangladesh should construct a deep sea port in the area for deep-draft larger vessels. This would serve our present and future need of international trade, and would also facilitate access of our neighbours to the sea.
The strategic location of Bangladesh, facing the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean, has created opportunities for it to serve the cause of sea-borne trade of the entire region to its north, north-east and north-west, which includes seven north-eastern states of India, Kunming city in China, and Chin and Rakhine states of Myanmar. The proposed Sonadia deep sea port may act as a gateway of this region to the sea. How soon will the project be finalised and its construction begin?
Md. Shafiqul Islam Ph.D, is a former Secretary, Government of Bangladesh.