The contract signed between the administration Falkland Islands (the Malvinas) and the BAM Nuttall company envisioning a new port constructed in Port Stanley has been subject to most noticeable scrutiny on the island in recent decades. There is reason why this have caused such a stir, as there are concerns suggesting that the construction of new deep-water port on the island by the United Kingdom could seriously affect the status quo and the balance of power in the region, making the Falklands a base for Britain’s economic expansion in the Antarctic. Of particular interest is the extent to which these plans comply with the spirit and letter of the UN General Assembly resolutions on the Falklands as well as the possibility of the UK expanding its military footprint in the region. That said, it is still too early to talk about whether or not the new port will shift the balance of power or bolster Britain’s standing in the region in any significant way.
At present, the critical ingredients of British transport infrastructure in the Falklands are the Mount Pleasant Complex (RAF Mount Pleasant) with its small port of Mare Harbour and the civilian port in Port Stanley, located next to the capital of Stanley. In the autumn of 2018, the Falkland Islands Government launched a tender for the construction of a new port, citing the poor state of the existing infrastructure.
By April 2020, the government signed a contract with BAM Nuttall Ltd. to replace the Falklands Interim Port and Storage System (FIPASS) with a new facility. The requirements for the new port included: jetty berthing capacity of 400m × 60m to replace the existing floating piers; a roll on, roll off facility to include a ferry and coastal shipping services; and a minimum design working life of 50 years.
It should be noted that none of the publicly available sources (except for some media outlets) mention that the new port is to be a deep-water complex. Among the project requirements is the provision that the port’s depth should be “at least the same as the depth currently available at FIPASS.” The new port is expected to be operational by 2024, replacing the existing infrastructure without interrupting traffic and port operations.
The contractor, BAM Nuttall, notes in the project description that the new facility will “benefit key users in the fishing, tourism and shipping sectors.” It makes no mention of fundamentally new opportunities in, say, the extraction of hydrocarbons or any plans in this area. Still, the project is a huge undertaking and will cost an estimated $85 million, which is almost half of the Falklands’ GDP, while the construction of the pier will require 900,000 tons of stone to be delivered.
However, a deep-water port is exactly what is needed to supply the oil and gas industry, although this would require considerably more work and financing. A similar port could be constructed in Port William, a city located north of Stanley Harbour, and the Purvis Narrows connected to it. While the inadequacy of the existing infrastructure and the need to build a deep-water port have been pointed out before (and announced in 2012), the idea never went beyond media speculation at the time (at least, when we analyze the available sources).
Nevertheless, there are concerns over the new port’s construction in Argentina. In particular, the government is worried that the new port could replace Ushuaia as the “main gateway” to Antarctica. However, a simple comparison of the proposed infrastructure of the new port (again, looking at the project’s key requirements) and that of Ushuaia Port reveals that the British development is – at least in terms of what has been made public – inferior, both in terms of berthing capacity (400 metres versus 679 metres) and pier depth. The Ushuaia Port pier is 10.4 metres deep, while the specifications of the existing harbour in Port Stanley mean that the pier cannot reach depths lower than 6 metres without extensive dredging works.
Looking at what the Falkland Islands need in terms of renovated port facilities, it may be worth exploring the history of the existing infrastructure of the FIPASS port. Construction of the port began shortly after the end of the 1982 Falklands War, prompted by the need to deliver large volumes of cargo to the islands for the construction of the Mount Pleasant Complex and the adjacent Mare Harbour naval base. The archaic infrastructure of Stanley Harbour, having remained untouched since the First World War, meant that ships arriving at the island were unloaded by means of floats and barges. This was good for landing operations but ill-equipped to deal with the deliveries of general cargo. This led to a sharp increase in freight costs due to the extended idle time of ships when unloading.
The solution came in the form of ITM Offshore technologies for the oil production infrastructure in the North Sea. Six large and interconnected floats, approximately 90×27 metres in size and with a deadweight of 10,000 tonnes each, were installed in two rows along the coast in Port Stanley. They were connected to the shore through a 180-metre pier and another smaller float that served as a kind of coupler and section for unloading ferries. Two floats were used as a quay wall, while the remaining four were used as storage facilities, also housing port personnel. Other companies involved in the construction were MacGregor Navire (access roads), Harland & Wolff (residential accommodations) and Nuttall, which would later become part of the BAM Nuttall group, the one to be awarded the contract under discussion in this article, and which equipped the quay walls that hold the entire structure in place.
The floats were brought to the islands on two heavy load carriers – the Dvyi Teal and the Dvyi Swan, along with a floating crane used to build the port. Construction was conducted by ITM Offshore specialists and British military engineers. The structure was deemed a “Flexiport,” implying that it could be completed or reconfigured with the addition of new floats. Its construction made it possible to speed up logistics processes dramatically: the first ship that arrived – the 2500-tonne bulk carrier MV Lesterbrook delivering 5000 tonnes of cargo and sixty 40-foot containers to the islands – was unloaded in just 30 hours. Previously, it took 21 days to unload this rather small ship using floats and barges, while larger vessels could remain in port for over a month.
The construction of the port cost ₤23 million (approximately ₤50ml at current prices) and, as British estimates suggest, the money was recouped in two years. FIPASS was then donated to the Falkland Islands Administration.
The floats are now approaching the end of their life cycle, which means they are set to be disposed of once the construction of the new port is complete.
Looking at the new project as a whole, we can say that certain improvements in terms of numbers have been made, such as in extending the berthing length to 400 metres and increasing the width of the pier, which will make loading/unloading operations easier. However, this is not the case as far as quality goes, as no provisions have been made for a deeper pier, making it impossible to unload large cargo ships. Besides, there is no information that would allow us to conclusively say whether the new facility will be used for military purposes (the Mare Harbour jetty currently fulfils this role) or whether there are plans to equip the port for large logistics operations related to possible oil and gas production on the shelf. In the form of specific planning documents or contracts, there is no indication that the long-hoped-for deep-water port will be constructed for these purposes. Given the geographical conditions and scope of the work, though, any movement on the part of the United Kingdom towards the construction of a deep-water port in this area would immediately be noticed by all interested parties, even if it tries to hide it from prying eyes.
Given the above, we can say that the British endeavor to modernize the port infrastructure in Port Stanley does not seem to violate the spirit and letter of Paragraph 4 of UN General Assembly Resolution 31/49 dated December 1, 1976—a document that calls on both sides “to refrain from taking decisions that would imply introducing unilateral modifications in the situation while the islands are going through the process recommended in the above-mentioned resolutions.”
Still, unexplored opportunities that the new infrastructure will open up for British industry and shipping will inevitably lead to boosted economic activity in fishing and tourism, if with some major limitations, though – local cargo transportation and the exploration of shelf resources. In future, this may entail renewed activity concerning the construction of a deep-water port and its transition from paper to practice. This issue will become increasingly important as the deadline for the revision of the Madrid Protocol draws closer to 2048, after which it may become possible to extract mineral resources in the Antarctic Treaty System area (beyond the 60th parallel south).
From a political perspective, the works in the Falklands fit into the general context of British politics in the wake of Brexit, which revolves around finding itself in a world where great powers are increasingly at odds and where activity at sea is on the rise. In the case of the Falklands, this may again rock relations with Argentina, a nation busy fortifying its naval forces by purchasing French-built patrol ships capable of operating in the open ocean.
From our partner RIAC