World’s diamond city can guide India’s waterways

Updated - November 01, 2016 11:45 pm IST

Published - October 09, 2016 11:10 pm IST

Port of Antwerp could serve as a benchmark as India bids to make dry river beds navigable and develop 2,000 river ports

The Belgian port has helped create cold chain storage facilities for fruits and vegetables transported across Europe. File Photo: Reuters

The Belgian port has helped create cold chain storage facilities for fruits and vegetables transported across Europe. File Photo: Reuters

Belgium’s Port of Antwerp could well be India’s lighthouse. In its bid to drastically cut logistics costs, the Asian nation is planning to pump in billions of dollars to make its dry river beds navigable and develop over 2,000 river ports across 111 national waterways spanning 20,000 km. And, it could take away a few lessons on generating cargo close to its proposed riverine ports from its European counterpart.

The Port of Antwerp, a river port set up over 500 years ago, and Europe’s second largest port behind Rotterdam, attracts some of the biggest vessels to its 86 terminals located 80 km inland, away from the North Sea, as it has emerged as one of Europe’s major transshipment hubs feeding cargo to large parts of Europe through water, rail and roadways.

Besides, it generates large quantities of cargo from manufacturing and processing units located in the port area (the biggest in the world spread across 12,068 hectares - or equivalent to about 20,000 football fields) to cater to the growing demand of vessels calling on the port and barges that transport cargo to the hinterland in Europe.

‘Cargo is king’

Located on the banks of the river Scheldt, a 350-km long perennial river that originates from France and that receives tidal water from the North Sea, the port has multiple canals dug up to create man-made waterways and additional capacity as well as to set up terminals for specific purposes such as container, liquid bulk, dry bulk and break-bulk cargo.

The port also boasts of 7 functional locks to ensure adequate water levels for vessels during times of low-tide in the confined zones to keep port activity going round the clock. Locks are created to enable vessels to sail away using the tidal window after completion of loading or off loading work.

The landlord port, which gives away land, warehouses, coverings and quays in concession to private enterprises, also houses Europe’s biggest petrochemicals zone and warehouses spread across 610 hectares.

The combination of cargo-handing, value-added logistics and production from local industry makes this port unique. The port boasts of railway and roads of 1,061 km and 430 km respectively for evacuation of cargo.

Through its quay length of 172 km, the port transports about 35 per cent of cargo through barges across Europe through the Scheldt (in Belgium, France and Netherlands), Rhine (Germany) and other European rivers. To ensure the entry of large vessels the port authorities have dredged the river and during high-tide the port gets draught that is about 15 metres more than available at India’s JNPT.

“For long India has focused on sea ports,” Eddy Bruyninckx, CEO, Port of Antwerp told The Hindu . “Today, if ships are sailing through a river to come to our port through the tidal window, it is because cargo is there. They come here because cargo is king.” .

According to him, “Cargo is here because we host Europe’s biggest petrochemical complex and 6 million sq metres of warehousing in the port area. That is cargo in itself. We provide excellent connectivity through barges right up to the Rhine,” he added.

Today, the port is focused on improving barge connectivity to the hinterland, as well.

Choosing investments

“You may, of course, invest a lot of money in a canal but if there are no services launched, if there are no barge operators, then you are nowhere,” he said. “It is extremely important to identify as to who will use the inland waterways. If you create industrial zones located at the border of the canal, cargo can be generated. There have to be logistics facilities as well,” he said.

For example, the port has helped in the creation of special warehouses or cold chain facilities for storage of fruits such as pineapples and bananas as well as vegetables that are transported across Europe even up to Russia. Many such facilities have their own captive terminals within 10 metre from the warehouse. This has become possible because terminals and the warehouses have been set up on the river bank itself.

The main objective is to generate enough cargo from the river banks so that riverine transport can be made viable and which would ultimately attract investors to invest in such projects.

Even as the government authorities are bullish on the prospects, India faces many challenges to develop and run these waterways.

Identifying the areas where investment can be made could be crucial. “You must know the potential of the particular waterway to attract water-way cargo. Where does it come from? Multiple activities need to be set up for the development and improvement of the waterway. You must address road congestion. You can invest a lot. The sky is the limit. But there has to be cargo and supply chain,” he said.

Draught concerns

Recently the Port of Antwerp undertook a study for the World Bank concerning the development of a waterway connecting Patna to Garden Reach near Kolkata.

The study mentions the seasonal variations in the navigable depth. In the monsoon, the draught (or the depth of water needed to float a ship) is fine but in other seasons it goes down. “It requires some capital dredging and some amount of maintenance dredging (to keep the water levels acceptable for movement of barges),” said Raj Khalid, the India representative of Port of Antwerp.

Both kinds of dredging - capital and maintenance - are important to deepen river beds. Moving the dredgers into the rivers is not easy and in most cases, the dredger needs to be assembled in the river to do its job. It may remain there forever thus blocking capital. Besides, the riverine transport routes should run uninterrupted for at least 300 km at a stretch so that desired logistics cost savings might be achieved.

“At least two metres of draught is required for movement of even the smallest barges,” said maritime expert Rohit Chaturvedi who was previously with CRISIL Infrastructure Advisory. “Rivers carry a lot of silt and sand which need to be removed constantly,” according to him.

“In India you have to do dredging and get the waterways into operation,” said Luc Arnouts, Chief Commercial Officer, Port of Antwerp which is helping Panama, Belgium, Netherlands, France and Germany to develop and maintain inland waterways.

According to Mr. Chaturvedi, another concern was from the dams and barrages that restricted the flow of water depending on local requirements. “No viable business can be built on the Cauvery considering the ongoing tussle between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu on sharing of water,” he said adding that Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) “is not institutionally strong to push aside these regional concerns and develop a viable business model for investors.”

After the successful movement of cargo on NW1 (the Ganga ) and NW2 (the Bramhaputra ), the World Bank, which had sanctioned Rs.4,000 crore for the NW1, is now keen that IWAI takes up passenger transportation in the second phase, said Pravir Pandey, Vice Chairman & Project Director, IWAI.

“MIT is designing the details on passenger movement for NW1,” according to him. “In NW2, we have already provided Roll On/ Roll off (RoRo) facility. We are facilitating the movement of buses, trucks and smaller vehicles.he added.

Meanwhile, NW5 on river Brahmani is being developed at a fast clip. This stretch is intended to mainly transport coal from the Mahanadi coalfield at Talcher to Paradip and Dhamra Port in Odisha.

India lagging

“We have started work to develop inland waterways, which are our priority. The objective is to reduce logistics costs, which is now 18 per cent,” said Union minister for Shipping and Roads Nitin Gadkari. According to him, “It is 8 per cent in China and goes up to 12 per cent in Europe. We have to bring it down to 12 per cent to be internationally competitive. Only water transportation can make it possible,” .

“We have a sea shore (line) of 7,500 km and we have 20,000 km of river banks. About 2,000 water ports can be created. We are putting up to 50 ports on the Ganga . We are investing Rs.4,000 crore on NW1. We are putting up multi-modal ports at Varanasi and Haldia. I am talking to the Korean government to (help) create waterways across rivers,” Mr. Gadkari added.

According to the minister, in India only 3.5 per cent of all cargo is transported through waterways. It is 47 per cent in China, 40 per cent in Europe, 44 per cent in South Korea and Japan and 35 per cent in Bangladesh.

The writer visited Belgium at the invitation of the Port of Antwerp for the unveiling of its new Porthouse.

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