HAVANA TIMES, June 6 (IPS) – Every year, pound by pound, sediments steadily rob the depth from the ocean floor. In bays, over a course of time, this occurrence can create an obstacle for maritime operations and commercial activity if necessary measures are not taken to reverse the situation.
When the depth decreases, nations have to look to smaller ships to import goods, although the world trend is in the opposite direction – to reduce the cost of freight larger ships are being used with greater frequency. International data reveal that “mega-container” ships now exist with capacities for transporting up to 100,000 tons.
For Cuba, where most of the products that it imports and exports pass through ports, improving the conditions of its bays is a necessity. Out of economic need, Cuban authorities undertook a program to reclaim that country’s most important commercial ports.
According to official sources, the country’s programs have involved an increase in imports, particularly in the field of energy. Also increasing has been the purchase of imported food, which constitutes 60 percent of the total volume of goods transported onto the island. To respond to these demands, it was necessary to reverse the situation of the loss of water depth to increase the potential for port operations.
A Comprehensive Program
Investments in dredging in Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos, Havana and Nuevo Gerona have exceeded US $23 million.
Collectively, the first three of those maritime facilities serve 90 percent of all ships that enter Cuba today, and they receive around 85 percent of the total volume of imported goods. However, these bays are limited by their shallow depths, decreasing the possibility for taking advantage of large ship capacities and consequently the relative cost advantages offered by these freighters.
National Port Authority director Luis Medina explained that ships can now only enter those ports at their partial weight capacity, though the country must pay the cost for full capacity. This means they arrive short of between 3,000 and 4,000 tons per ship, which translates into unnecessary expenditures that the country is in no condition to assume.
The official stated to the press that the dredging plan is spurred by the necessity to increase bay depths to minimize “non-service fees” (having to pay for the unused capacities of crafts) and “extra fees” (the cost of supplemental trips).
According to specialists, the national program to dredge the most important ports was developed based on a comprehensive study that involved all organizations of the central state administration through a multidisciplinary group that evaluated this intervention’s potential impact on the island’s economy.
Accordance to Medina, the project’s feasibility is supported by the savings it represents for the Cuban economy through taking advantage of the total capacity of ships with which Cuba contracts to deliver cargo. In the initial phase of the study, completed at the end of last year, it was shown that $23 million in annual savings would have accrued.
It is expected that this year the three main ports will complete their dredging (along with the construction of access roads, maneuver basins, terminal channels and docking facilities, among other improvements) whereby water depth will reach an average of 11.5 meters. This will allow those bays to accommodate ships carrying up to 40,000 tons.
This clearance activity will eliminate unnecessary charges paid for below-capacity deliveries and those costs associated with supplemental voyages to deliver merchandise; this means that after the conclusion of the work, more merchandise can be delivered on fewer ships.
Havana Bay has special importance
According to specialists, Havana Bay – the type known as a “pocket bay” – has a surface of 5.2 square kilometers or 47 million cubic meters of water. Estimates indicate that it has a maximum depth of about fourteen meters, despite continued media reports of it having only nine meters.
The pocket has a strait or entrance channel that then forms into three inlets: Atares, Guasabacoa and Marimelena. Because of the bays importance (since it receives 50 percent of the ships that drop anchor in the country), the Port of Havana was prioritized for dredging.
In May 2008 work began on dredging Havana Bay and on the maneuver basins of the Havana Container Terminal (TCH). The decision to begin this effort was due to the importance of the facility in terms of traffic, both that of containers and general cargo passing in and out of Cuba.
Havana Bay itself can accommodate ships with a depth of 11.45 meters, but due to the state of the waterways in the container terminal, this was limited to 9.45 meters. With the dredging work, it is now possible reach a depth of 11.5 meters; this will therefore expand the commercial potential of the terminal in conformity with the larger ships now used in regional Caribbean traffic.
Presently, the dredging project is proceeding satisfactorily in Santiago de Cuba Bay, where more than 8,000 cubic meters of polluted sediment have been removed.
Ramon Suarez, an official at the Santiago Port Authority, explained during the 4th International Caribbean Coast Conference (Caricosta 2009) held in Santiago, this work constitutes one of the most important salvage operations for improved quality of that ecosystem.
As a part of that project, more than 20 tons of hydrocarbons were extracted. This was aimed at achieving “cleaner production” by industries that border the coast; they are working to reduce the pollution load levels and to handle urban solid waste appropriately.
Once dredged, access will be facilitated through the interior channel and to the facilities of the Frank Pais Flour Mill, the Antonio Maceo Refrigeration Terminal, the north channel and to the maneuver basin of the Guillermon Moncada Port (the second most important harbor in the country).
Santiago de Cuba Bay – with its privileged location for trade with the Caribbean – is the second most polluted inlet on the island. It receives the greatest port activity and marine operations for receiving merchandise for the island’s eastern provinces. Parallel to the sea floor cleanup plan, a program of environmental education directed at coastal communities and users of the bay is being carried out, Suarez said.
Another of the inlets benefiting has been that of Cienfuegos, due to its importance for the entry of ships transporting petroleum to the Camilo Cienfuegos Refinery, operated by Cuba and Venezuela. From this bay, 130,000 cubic meters of sediment were extracted along with approximately 25,000 cubic meters of surplus solids, which allowed the bay to reach a depth of 11.9 meters in the dock areas, the same level as the port entry.
According to Gregorio Gonzalez, director of the Marine Works Company, which is in charge of project execution, “It was the first job executed and it was completed in the agreed upon time with the quality required.”
Although of smaller in scale, it is worth mentioning the dredging operation carried out last year at the Batabano Port, south of Havana. This dock is an indispensable installation for guaranteeing waterway communications with the port of Gerona, on the Isle of Youth.
Port authorities in Batobano explained that the dredging operation obeyed a meticulous hydrographic study of the environmental impact. Likewise, since this zone experiences significant accumulations of sediments, it could be necessary to repeat the operation. In the last calendar year, work of this nature was also carried in the La Estopa channel, between Nuevo Gerona and Cayo Largo del Sur, an action that will improve the transport of workers and merchandise in both directions.
According to the director of the Marine Works Company, “This is a program that has its steps, and we cannot violate what is established in the investment process. This means having all the documentation in order, beginning with licenses, permits and contracts. The second step is the financing, which is on time and made in the appropriate places.”
In statements to the Cuban press, Gonzalez recognized, “We are not exempt from hold ups or from some problems of timeliness. Up to now, I can’t say that the process has been slow, but it takes a period of preparation, it’s more complex. When you conclude with a terminal, as was the case in Batabano, from 30 to 40 days are needed to smooth things out, because these sites are subjected to very high levels of waste.”
“We work with sand, mud, rock, and salt residue. The large mechanical dredges can finish up work, but they almost always require a period for servicing before they can begin operations somewhere else. If delays have occurred in this program, they’re generally due to hold ups with the import of spare parts.”
According to Luis Medina, director of the National Port Authority, once the current stage is concluded, “Another projection phase comes to maintain what we have done. The province went 30 years without dredging; we won’t wait another 30 more to do it again. Maintenance is cheaper. It doesn’t require so much volume. It’s sometimes not even necessary to dredge the dock areas, but only the sedimentation pits.”
According to Port Authority officials, the province has to act quickly before the widening of the Panama Canal, which will revolutionize maritime traffic in this region. Experts point out that given its geographical location, Cuba cannot overlook that project.
Reideleide Machado, a specialist with the Office of Maritime and Waterway Transport of the Cuban Ministry of Transportation, assures that “the widening of the Panama Canal will change the logistics of the whole continent because it will serve Super Panamax ships. The ports of the Caribbean area have to be prepared.” In order to respond to the subsequent distribution of goods in larger crafts from various countries, more flexible and efficient ports will be needed.
Translation by Havana Times