Ports of Pakistan and Gwadar’s Potential as a Transshipment Port

The oceans play an important role in transportation of cargo in the world over, being the cheapest mode of transportation as compared to rail, road and air. According to International Chamber of Shipping, 90% of world trade is carried by 50,000 merchant ships.  It includes all types of cargo like machinery, vehicles, different types of liquids, construction material, food items, and livestock.  These ships need ports to be docked for loading and discharging of cargo. Countries having all weather deep draught ports, equipped with state of the art cranes and associated equipment to handle cargo efficiently are mammoth source of advancement of economy.

Seaports are also instrumental for generating employment opportunities through effects associated with these like crew for operations and personnel  to work in repair workshops for sea going ships and different types of  harbor vessels such of tugs, pilot boats, dredging vessels, and  different  types of other equipment .  Logistics activities such as storing, distribution, container stacking, food arrangements for employees. Personnel for inspection and custom requirements. Ports attract investors to establish industries in the vicinity to import raw material and export finished goods. It is observed that large cities are located closer to the bigger ports. Infect ports can be the real pillars of economic development of a country.

Major considerations for a port are; less adverse weather affects, bigger ships (deep draught and longer in length) can be docked, efficiently handling of loading and unloading of cargo.   In addition back yard area to handle cargo should have sufficient space. Hinterland connections should facilitate smooth flow of cargo to and from the port. Pakistan has about 1120 Km coast with three commercial ports. Karachi port was developed in 1887 and is being operated by Karachi Port Trust (KPT).  It has a total 33 berths. Out of these, three oil piers for handling liquid cargo like different types of oil, molasses etc. Ships up to 12.5 meters draught can be berthed. Out of remaining 30, three each on East and West wharves are for handling containers which have been leased to Pakistan International Container Terminal (PICT) and Karachi International Container Terminal (KICT) following Land Lord Port Policy. 

These companies install their own cranes, other equipment and have their own employees for operations. The ownership remains with the Port Authorities. Container carriers up to 11.5 m draught can be docked. Remaining berths can handle bulk carriers and other type of ships having comparatively shallow draught up to 10 meters.   The recently built extension of Karachi port has quay wall of 1500 meters which can dock mostly container ships up to 16 meter draught.  These berths have been given on lease to South Asia Pakistan Terminal (SAPT) for operations. It is a modern facility equipped with state of the art cranes and other associated equipment.  Karachi port has handled 55million tons of cargo in 2017-18, which was about 55% percent of the total cargo of Pakistan. However, this port is now in the center of the busy city Karachi, therefore cargo flow to and from the port has become very problematic. Alternate routes needs to be explored. It is suggested that a pipe line for liquid cargo from oil piers at Kemari to an appropriate location outside limits of Karachi may be constructed. From here oil tankers may load the liquid cargo for upcountry. For containerized and other cargo a separate road may be built from Karachi port to link high way. In the meantime only smaller 6 to 8 wheeler trucks may be allowed to take cargo to a separately built yard outside the limits of Karachi from where bigger trucks can take the cargo to and from up country.

The second port is Bin Qasim which is also located in Karachi. It has seven berths; ships up to 12 meters draught can be docked. It is being operated by Port Qasim Authority (PQA). It was initially built to provide iron ore to Karachi Steel Mills. Now it can handle all types of cargo including containers, oil and Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG).  In the year 2017-18 it has handled 45 million tons of cargo which was 45 % of the total cargo.  Bin Qasim port has sufficient spaces to build new berths when required. Its   connection with hinterland is not posing problems because it is located well outside the main city. These two ports are meeting the requirements to handle all types of import and export of Pakistan which is presently around 100 million tons and have capacity to meet future requirements as well.

3.The third commercial port is Gwadar which is located on the Western edge of the coast in the province of Balochistan about 533 km from Karachi. It occupies a strategic location at the entrance of Persian Gulf overlooking the Arabian Sea. It is just outside the choke point, Straits of Hormuz, where 17 million barrels of oil passes every day. In 1997 the government appointed Task Force identified this fishing harbor to be developed as a commercial port.   The project could not be started due to economic sanctions after nuclear detonation in May 1998. It started in 2002 and first phase was completed 2007.  It has 1000 meter quay wall to dock 14.5 meter draught ships. It has 3 multipurpose berths one RO – RO facility and one service berth.  First ship was docked carrying 70,000 metric tons of wheat in March 2008.   Originally it was built to supplement other two ports.

Now it has taken shape as key component of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).    It has been leased to China Overseas Port Holding Company (COPHC) for 40 years. It is designed to handle cargo of Chinese Western province, Xinjiang and at a later stage cargo of land lock countries, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. Presently cargo of Afghanistan is being handled by Karachi and port Qasim. Gwadar port is ready for operation about 11 years before but it has not been operated to its optimum capacity yet. Mainly because the designed road and rail infrastructure up to Khunjerab pass has not been fully developed.  However it meets the requirements to be operated as a Transshipment Port in addition to CPEC cargo. 

The transshipment concept refers to the shipment of containers/ goods to an intermediate port before being taken to the final destination.  It plays a critical role due to infrastructure limitations in smaller sea ports and shipping lines strategies to have minimum ports of calls of their bigger ships.  Now days an average, a container is handled 3 to 4 times between the first port of loading and the final port of discharge.  The concept of transshipment operation is increasing very fast. Gwadar port because of its strategic location closer to Persian Gulf, ability to handle deep draught ships, short access channel of only 4.7 km long, comparatively low cost labor, sufficient area to stack containers and other cargo, can be equipped to operate as a transshipment port. Bigger ships coming and going to Persian Gulf, and bound for Indian Ocean littorals can discharge their cargo at Gwadar and smaller ships can take these to the ports of destination.

It is pertinent to mention that Singapore area wise is a small country, but its Port of Singapore is the world’s biggest transshipment port as well as the busiest port after Shanghai. It handled 36.6 million containers in 2018. The government of Pakistan Ministry of Maritime Affairs may consider the possibility of operating Gwadar as a transshipment port. It will certainly act as source of enhancement of economy and to provide job opportunities especially to residents of Balochistan.   

Dr. Anjum Sarfraz
Dr. Anjum Sarfraz
the author is Cdre (retd) former Senior Research Fellow, at NIMA And SVI Islamabad