When Dubai began developing the small village of Jebel Ali into a port complex in the 1970s no-one could have foreseen how big it would become. But even the rapid growth of past years, which has made it a major port and light industry complex, is about to be dwarfed.
By the year 2030 - if current projections are right - Dubai's main container handling port could be 10 times its current size, with its near 6M TEU (twenty foot equivalent container units) handled annually increased to 56M. That would put it well ahead of Singapore's current throughput and among the biggest ports in the world.
Growth is being driven by various factors, says Dubai Ports Authority chief executive Jamal Majir bin Thaniah. First is the massive growth of Dubai itself. Once seen as being well outside the town, the port is now surrounded by astonishing new development, with much more under way. And since Dubai survives by trade, importing virtually every thing it uses, port capacity is vital.
Secondly, he says, Dubai has always had ambitions to be a regional trading hub for the whole Gulf region. It sees a lot of cargo on two main routes, Europe to Middle East, and Far East to Middle East.
To keep up with this demand means general expansion, bin Thaniah says. 'The overall capacity of the existing port will reach saturation by 2009 at 9.5M TEUs.' Even that figure, which means around 20% annual growth, is only being achieved by massive restructuring of the existing two basin port (see box).
'But there is also a need to provide much deeper berths, ' he adds. The shipping industry intends to use many more of the giant 8,000 unit container ships and plans for 12,000 unit ships are current. These need water up to 18m deep in some cases, although future provision is more often set at -17m.
The existing port has an inner basin with -11.5m maximum draft capacity and an outer part with -15m. The central pier has been lengthened to create an extra 1350m of quay wall and water depth for two berths of -17m. But to really take advantage means building new extensions to the port, and like much else in Dubai this will mean offshore reclamation.
This expansion, already well on in planning and with detailed design for the first stage about to begin, will see the port extend seawards for nearly 10km. By using massive reclamation, the port will increase its berthing and container stacking and handling space by leaps and bounds.
The scheme, master planned by New York consultant Han Padron - now part of Halcrow - involves dredging the seabed and piling the fill in a series of rectangular islands. These will be created one at a time, or perhaps more if demand jumps during the next two decades.
'We shall use vibrocompaction to speed the settlement process, ' says bin Thaniah. The nearby Palm Jebel Ali also used squads of vibrocompactors for its newly created land. Each new island stage serves to store the huge quantities of material won by dredging the existing seabed which is around 6m deep at the shore and gradually reaching perhaps 14m further out. In its initial stage it also provides weather and sea protection for the berths and it is likely each island will have simple beach slopes and stone protection.
As each stage moves on, however, the preceding island will be converted to a full quay wall structure, with stacking and storage facilities in the centre, and the next island will be created to protect that. Some 15 or so islands make up the full plan, the last ones in a second row coming back towards the shore.
The port's main channel will also be deepened and it is likely the islands will be linked by bridges. Open channels will ensure that water currents can run freely. This is important because just along the coast a large aluminium smelter is sited along with a number of power plants and desalination facilities.
All have water intakes sensitive to flows and temperature, and part of Han Padron's work has been a major environmental impact assessment including the impact on these facilities. The huge new Dubai Waterfront development announced around Palm Island, Jebel Ali may influence currents still further.
There are also major pipe and power line connections to gas fields further out to consider.
A rst stage of the work, which extends the coastline outwards and creates the first of the islands, is ready for detailed design, with a 700m wide basin and a 2.7km length of quay for eight 17m water depth berths.
A 750m wide container yard will have some 23 unloading cranes and rail mounted stackers behind, using both five and seven unit high stacks.
Dredging requirement will be about 24M. m 3 and the area will need an additional 100MW of power, according to Dubai Port Authority head of civil engineering Nazek al-Sabbagh.
All this may yet cause controversy. When Jebel Ali was first envisaged it was well away from the city. Now the ranks of containers and the port's industrial parks will be highly visible, not least to the thousands of new apartment owners along the coast and on the new reclaimed areas. But the extra capacity is crucial if those same apartments are to be supplied with all they need.