The 21st century oceangoing vessels are no doubt designed to have larger cargo carrying capacity in line with the principle of economy of scale and shifting global ship demand.
As a result, the global maritime community has continued to witness deployment of mega vessels and this started with the advent of “E-class ships” of the 2000 that had the capacity to 11,000 to 13,800 twenty equivalent units (TEUs).
Today, the industry is witnessing the era of “Triple E” container ships built with the capacity to lift over 20,000 TEUs in one voyage. She is 400 metres length, 59 metres width, and dock on water depths of at least 16 metres. The term Triple E is in reference to three design principles including economy of scale, energy efficient and environmentally improved.
Increase in vessel size is not peculiar to container ships alone as tankers, general cargo ships, oil-bulk-ore (OBO), roll-on-roll-off (RO-RO) and bulk carriers are also taking advantage of size economics.
Expectedly, the emergence of large vessels in shipping business has shaped the way ports operate. From Shanghai to Le Havre, Houston to Las Palmas, Felixstowe to Cape Town, Hamburg to Rotterdam, Piraeus to Singapore, port channels and berths are being dredged and expanded to accommodate bigger vessels. This is in addition to installation of state-of-the-art shore cargo handling equipment to enhance cargo loading and discharge.
As a matter of fact, a key performance indicators of port growth today apart from the volume of cargo handled, is the number and size of ships a port handles per annum and this cannot go in isolation of the depth of the port’s berth and its water channels.
Considering the milestones that have been achieved by the various channel management companies that have joint venture partnership with the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) since 2005, one cannot but appreciate the strategic importance of dredging to the growth of our seaports.
Dredging, wreck removal and other channel operational activities of the Bonny Channel Company (BCC) Limited and the Lagos Channel Management (LCM) Limited in the Bonny and Lagos pilotage districts, stand out in this regard.
Overtime, BCC has been able to increase the depth of Bonny Channel from 12.5 to 14.3 metres and width from 215 to 230 metres. This feat has spurred increase in the number of LNG vessels calling at Bonny from an average of 192 to 480 vessels per year in a space of 10 years.
The flexibility of the waterways and maritime traffic is vital not only to the Bonny Channel and rivers, but also to the upstream ports of Onne and Port-Harcourt. In addition to deepening the channels, BCC conducts surveys of over 2,816 km a year along the waterway and also removes wrecks to free the waters from obstructions for easy passage of the LNG vessels and other ships.
Due to the operations of BCC, the WAFMAX vessel visited the Federal Ocean Terminal successfully on a “Trial run” in 2013, and this was made possible by expansion of the Onne Turning Basin to accommodate larger vessels. Also, in 2013, BCC did a towage trial run with WAFMAX vessel with 4,800 capacities at Onne port and it is the biggest vessel to date to enter Onne Port.
The Company also maintains and monitors aids to navigation of the Bonny Channel and has installed 76 buoys to date. This has aided the movement of Bonny Gas Transport vessels (LNG gas carriers) to and fro without incident, thus contributing to the nation’s economic growth.
BCC is a joint venture Public Private Partnership (PPP) between the NPA and TCMC (Technical consortium made of Dredging International, Vinci and IPEM).
In Lagos, LCM has seen vessel traffic increased by more than 75 percent over the last 12 years with a significant increase in the number of larger and more drafted vessels entering the Lagos channels. This can be attributed to the capital dredging that has increased the depths from between 8.2 and 9.7 metres in 2005, to 13.5 metres today.
The LCM had achieved at least 12.5 metres draft for the majority of Lagos Ports since 2010, allowing major ships to steam directly to Lagos, rather than first stop to lighten their vessels at the ports of Cotonou or Lome because of shallow drafts in the Lagos channels. This old practice accounted for huge revenue losses to Nigeria then but since 2014 the narrative has changed.
For instance, Maersk Line is already stemming in vessels with drafts of 13.2 metres, and the company is said to be aiming at increasing its vessel sizes to drafts of 13.7 metres in due course. The Flour Mills of Nigeria (FMN) at Apapa Berths 1 and 2 now brings in bulk carriers with drafts of 12.2 metres on a continuous basis.
The LCM has also succeeded in the harmonisation of all navigational charts to international standards together with a Marine Operation Center (MOC) that provides a live information hub on the channels. All of these continue to strengthen government’s resolve to make Lagos ports the hub ports of West and Central Africa.
Therefore, it is imperative for government to strengthen the channel management companies legally and institutionally in order to enable them continue the task of efficient dredging of the ports and their waterways.
Also, the government needs to strengthen the channel companies in every way possible to enable them perform well given the fact that 11 years of port concession requires efficient and sustained maintenance dredging of the ports for Nigeria to consolidate the inherent gains.