Across the sea: Port activity gets a boost from regional development

With more than 1000 km of coastline on its northern and western borders, as well as its proximity to the Panama Canal, Colombia enjoys strategic access to key export markets and maritime thoroughfares. Encouraged by domestic economic growth and an increasing number of free trade agreements with key trading partners, a number of ports are seeking to capture an increasing share of global maritime trade. The majority of these ports are located on the Atlantic coast and are operated for both private and public use. The Caribbean ports of Cienaga, Bolivar and Prodeco are owned and operated by mining conglomerates with activities at Drummond, Glencore and Carbones del Cerrejón. With investment plans in place to ramp up mining output and comply with national environmental regulations, port facilities are undergoing significant expansion financed by their private stakeholders.

ATLANTIC: Three multi-purpose port facilities dot the Atlantic coast in the cities of Cartagena, Barranquilla and Santa Marta. Recovery of the lull in global maritime traffic and the rapid roll-out of infrastructure projects around Latin America (particularly in Brazil, which is preparing to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games) have triggered the expansion and modernisation of Colombia’s ports.

Cartagena is home to the north’s biggest facility and consists of two container terminals, separately managed by the Terminal de Contenedores de Cartagena (Contecar) and the Sociedad Portuaria Regional de Cartagena (SPRC). The latter also operates docking points for roll-on/roll-off, bulk, general cargo and a cruise terminal. In 2012 the facility had a combined annual capacity of 2.1m twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) and enough depth to receive Panamax vessels carrying up to 8000 TEUs. Anticipating the additional traffic supported by the ongoing expansion of the Panama Canal, an investment plan worth $500m is currently being rolled out. This will increase annual combined capacity to 2.7m TEUs and accommodate ships of up to 12,000 TEUs. In addition, funding will go to new equipment, such as five Super-Post-Panamax cranes (two for SPRC and three for Contecar), as well as 24 rubber tired gantry cranes (RTGs).

RIVER PORT: Further east lies Barranquilla’s port zone, which over the course of 2012 registered a 7.16% increase in operations compared to 2011, reaching a total of 8.2m tonnes. Due to its position on the mouth of the Magdalena River, this facility largely caters to transshipments going to or coming from inland river ports.

Puerto de Barranquilla Sociedad Portuaria, one of the terminals located in the city, had a 0.34% increase in bulk general cargo and container shipment, handling a total volume of 4.25m tonnes. Of this, imports accounted for 2.86m tonnes (up by 1.4%) while exports fell by 1.7%. The predominant share of handled imports consisted of bulk cargo while exports were dominated by coal. According to the operator’s figures, the first four months of 2013 saw drops in imports (albeit marginal) and exports at 0.1% and 2.5%, respectively.

EXPANSIONS: Encouraged by regional growth prospects, Sociedad Portuaria de Barranquilla has developed a master plan for the port’s development until 2033, the year in which its concession ends. The plan targets both expansion and modernisation in a bid to increase annual cargo movements beyond 6m tonnes.

At the time of writing, the firm was analysing different options to optimise movement and space allocation, including the introduction of reachstackers, RTGs and straddle carriers. Overall, it estimates that new equipment could raise current capacity by 200%. Plans to increase navigability of the Magdalena River will significantly improve the outlook of the port zone of Barranquilla, and that of Cartagena. At the time of writing, the government was in advanced stages of awarding the 10-year concession, which is valued at $680m.

Colombia’s third multi-purpose Atlantic port is that of Santa Marta, used for handling coal, cargo and container traffic. The facility is operated by the Sociedad Portuaria de Santa Marta (SPSM), which holds a concession until 2033. Over the course of 2012, total port operations saw a growth of 13% in cargo movements. This was most pronounced at the container terminal, which saw cargo grow by 44% year-on-year, encouraged by a $48m expansion to raise annual installed capacity from 100,000 to 300,000 containers. The port’s objective is to further increase capacity to 450,000 before the end of 2013. Bulk cargo was up by 10%, partly facilitated by investments in offloading equipment and storage silos, despite a 3% nationwide drop in import volumes. Growth was also recorded in the number of vehicles handled, which went up by 45% over the year reaching some 40,000 units. Following trends at competing ports, SPSM is also investing in higher capacity and modern equipment. The annual capacity of the container terminal is being expanded from 100,000 to 450,000 units while new handling equipment, including three new Panamax cranes that were received in June of 2013, is expected to speed up movements by some 40% (see box).

PACIFIC: On the Pacific coast, the options are less diversified. The Port of Buenaventura holds the country’s biggest container terminal, as well as the sole mass-cargo exit and entry point on the Pacific coast. Shipments to and from Asia and the west coast of the Americas are handled here. The facility also has the closest connections to the “golden triangle” comprising the main cities of Bogotá, Medellín and Cali where the highest levels of population and industrial activity are located. Not counting minerals and fuel, the facility accounts for 46% of imported and exported volume. Management is in the hands of the Sociedad Portuaria Regional de Buenaventura, which is operated under a concession of private and public players led by UAE-based DP world and comprising minority shares of the Ministry of Transport and the Buenaventura local council. Over the past three years the port has seen a gradual increase in bulk cargo volumes, which rose from 2.9m tonnes in 2010 to 3.5m tonnes in 2012, according to the port’s figures. In contrast, incoming and outgoing container traffic has gradually fallen from 314,000 TEUs in 2010 to 225,000 TEUs in 2012. This was followed by general cargo, which after an annual growth of 20% in 2011 dropped by 10% in 2012 reaching 815,979 tonnes. This can be largely explained by a substantial decrease in export volumes from 2.17m tonnes in 2011 to 1.69m tonnes over the 12 months.

INVESTMENT PLAN: The concessionaire has developed a $450m investment plan extending through 2034, the end date of its contract for the facility. Of this amount, close to half – some $215m – has been reserved for infrastructure development, $175m for port and handling equipment and $60m for dredging activities. The overall objective of the improvement works is to raise the port’s installed capacity from 13.5 tonnes per sq metre to 22.8 tonnes per sq metre, an undertaking which would allow the port to process a total volume of 27m tonnes annually by 2032.

In addition to Buenaventura’s expansion plans, a significant item on the agenda for 2013 is the start of construction on the fifth terminal (named Aguadulce) and handled separately by Philippines-based ICTSI. The new facility will aim to raise the capacity of the container terminal by 400,000 units per year and by 2m tonnes of bulk cargo. Works on the terminal scheduled for completion in 2015. While Buenaventura is in need of expansion and modernisation, its impact on the nation’s transporters largely depends on the surrounding infrastructure. At present, incoming roads and surrounding distribution facilities do not have the capacity to process the high number of trucks coming to port.

CONNECTIONS: Economic growth at home, trade agreements with strategic partners and anticipated expansion of regional maritime traffic provide Colombia with an opportunity to capitalise on its strategic location and direct maritime access. This has triggered a slate of ambitious investment plans by the commercial operators of Colombia’s principal multi-purpose ports. While this should see a significant rise in installed capacities, genuine benefits from these ambitious expansion plans can only be achieved if the infrastructure connecting the ports to the hinterland is developed in tandem.

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