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Freedom of the waves

The advent of colossal cargo ships and a steady growth in sea borne trade signals a bright future for the ports sector. Andrew Mylius launches the ports and harbours special with an industry overview.

Experts say the global shipping industry is depressed. But despite this the World Bank forecasts international seaborne trade will grow at 4% a year in the next decade.

Imports and exports are growing as economies continue to expand in many of the world's developing nations. While bulk volumes are unlikely to get larger, increasing trade in manufactured goods is creating huge demand for container shipping. Regardless of recession, south-east Asia and India alone need more than 100 new deep water container terminals. China, Australia, the Middle East, African countries, and Chile, Argentina and Brazil continue to pursue ports sector growth.

Water transport accounts for 90% of freight travelling between the European Union and outside countries, and 30% of goods moved within the EU. Last year the European Commission proposed funding to integrate short-sea shipping into its Trans European Transport Network, TENS. Under the scheme, road and rail freight would, where viable, be transported by ship. Parallel proposals, outlined last year in the UK Government's White Paper on integrated transport, favour diverting a minimum of 3.5% road freight to water, bringing total domestic water borne tonnage to around 11%.

Developments in the ports and harbours sector are dictated by trends in shipping. The industry worldwide is business-led and tends to be reactive. Demand will increasingly be for 'hub' ports serving the largest inter- continental ships. From these, goods will be distributed via smaller ships to satellite ports, or onto national road and rail networks.

Hub ports will increasingly specialise in handling particular cargoes - bulk, containers or roll-on roll-off. A premium is placed on the ability to handle large quantities of cargo very fast in order to maximise ships' earnings at sea. Where there are already well established ports - in the UK, Europe, North America, Hong Kong and Singapore - a lot of future work will come in the form of port expansion and upgrading.

Change in the ports sector is being driven by a new generation of 'super post-Panamax' container ships. The vessels are fast enough to make inter- oceanic navigation economically viable without using the Panama Canal. As a result they have broken free of the size constraints the Canal imposed.

Post-Panamax ships are enormous. Until the mid-80s the biggest container ships carried up to 2,500 TEUs (twenty foot equivalent units). Now 6,000 TEU ships are fairly common and operators are looking at buying vessels of 8,000 TEUs. UK ship-broker the Baltic Exchange anticipates 14,000 TEU monsters appearing on the horizon in the near future. In 30 years drafts have increased from 9.75m to 15m and overall length from 180m to 347m.

Ports are responding to these nautical giants with massive dredges to make approach channels navigable and provide deep berthing. UK port owner- operator Associated British Ports reports dredging is by far its largest cost, accounting for 7% of annual expenditure. Since few if any harbours are naturally deep enough to accommodate super post-Panamax ships, new and maintenance dredging will be a major hub port activity, world-wide.

Dredging is carried out more or less unfettered by concern for the environment along the coasts and on the estuaries of developing countries. However, in Europe and the UK all major dredging is subject to environmental impact assessments and the port is normally required to mitigate or compensate any loss of natural habitat.

Faced with stiff competition for hub port business from rivals throughout continental Europe, port authorities are keen to find rapid, creative solutions to limit damage to the environment and objections from its guardians. There is likely to be increasing demand for investigative studies including pollution tracking, measurement of risk from contaminated sediments, assessment of behaviour in seabed materials, sediment erodability and erosion resistance, sedimentation studies and coastal and offshore design.

The advent of post-Panamax ships is demanding jetties and quay sides that are longer and of far higher specification than is presently normal. Ships now carry as many as 8,000 containers stacked 22 wide. Loading and unloading requires cranes with a reach of 50m which place huge load demands on the quay side. In addition to rail-mounted cranes, ports are also now using colossal mobile gantries mounted on multiple rubber tyres. Machines like the Gottwald 360 are capable of lifting 12t through a 27m radius. Containers are being stacked eight-high.

Hub ports will account for a large proportion of international trade but be relatively few in number. In the UK, for example, Felixstowe, Southampton, Humberside, Immingham, Hull, Thamesport and - if it gets consent - Dibden Bay are the only real hub port contenders.

One of the consequences of the post-Panamax revolution is that ships that are now classed as large and medium-size will be put to work on routes running between hub and satellite ports.

Deepening and upgrading, albeit on a slightly smaller scale, will have to be carried out at virtually every port that wants to remain commercially viable in the future.

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