File photo: Rogan Ward/Reuters.

Durban - an international ports expert has expressed serious reservations about Durban’s proposed dig-out port.

He said plans for a dig-out port should be put on hold, with efforts rather directed at maximising the existing facilities and potential at Durban Harbour.

International adviser and expert on port development Jamie Simpson, of Canada, has warned Transnet and the eThekwini Municipality against pursuing the dig-out port, saying the current port has to “keep going”.

Simpson was a guest speaker at a ports and cities dialogue with Durban businesses, hosted by the municipality’s Edge (Economic Development and Growth eThekwini) at the Moses Mabhida Stadium yesterday.

His point of view was supported by two other speakers.

However, Transnet group strategy general manager Irvindra Naidoo was adamant that the parastatal was forging ahead with the project, saying Durban was “running out of capacity” and had to expand.

Naidoo said: “The question was: ‘Okay, do we now go off somewhere else and develop a new maritime cluster around Richards Bay or somewhere else, or do we try to embed or strengthen the cluster... (by extending) the Durban port?’ That’s what this dig-out port really is about. It’s an extension of an existing cluster.”

The port, the continent’s busiest, caters for 2.6 million TEU (twenty-foot equivalent units) a year. These result in about 8 000 daily container-related heavy vehicle movements around the Bayhead area.

Transnet has repeatedly said that the port will battle to provide the capacity for future demand.

Naidoo said with a dig-out port at the old Durban International Airport site, the containers could reach 8.2 million TEU by 2040, resulting in about 17 500 heavy vehicle movements daily in the South Durban Basin.

Simpson told the panel that the move “might not be a very good solution”.

He said: “In view of the likely availability of financing – a lot of uncertainty – I think the port has to keep going and develop a capital investment plan and operational improvement plans to meet demand in the next five to 10 years.”

From there, he said, the parastatal could “weigh up” whether a bigger port “makes sense in view of market conditions… and availability of finance at the time”.

The first phase of construction of the dig-out port was expected to start between 2021 and 2025. A pre-feasibility study started in 2013.

A presentation study presented by Naidoo yesterday stated that:

- Landside geotechnical investigations had been undertaken.

l Initial Biodiversity due diligence study and contamination/groundwater assessment was completed.

- A sustainability steering committee was established, to oversee sustainability elements to be incorporated into design, development and operation of the dig-out port.

- Met-ocean investigations to establish current and wind data were completed.

- Hydrographic surveys to on the seabed configuration were finished.

The initial completion date for the first phase had been 2020, but Transnet announced last year that the date would be delayed because of “technical issues”.

Media reports at the time indicated that costs were escalating and about R75 to R100 billion would be required. The project could take between 20 and 40 years to be completed.

URGENCY

“The case at the moment is too uncertain,” Simpson said.

Feedback he had received was that there were a lot of improvements needed at the current port, and these should go ahead “as a matter of urgency”.

“My expectation would be that they should improve efficiency and increase capacity.

“At the current growth rates, perhaps, quite a bit can be done over the next five years, which buys time until there is greater clarity (on financing),” he said.

Vee Govender, of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Centre for Civil Society and a member of the Environmental Network, asked if the project should not be determined by demand.

“You’re projecting a demand and you’re projecting growth. If that projected demand does not materialise, are we not facing a potential disaster?”

He said surrounding communities had not been involved in the “stakeholder engagements”, yet they would be severely affected.

UKZN geography professor Brij Maharaj echoed Govender’s sentiments. He said: “It is clear that Durban port is inefficient and they are not maximising the full potential of the port and yet we are talking about the dig-out port.

“In addition there is 507ha of land within the existing port for additional use. It is very clear if one does a cost benefit analysis, it would be better to invest and upgrade the existing port rather than spend R250bn, which the country can ill afford.”

He added that, considering that 140 000 people would be “adversely impacted” by the project, Transnet and the municipality had not “applied their minds”.

Some of the medium-term plans for the upgrading of the current Durban harbour, according to Transnet, include: North Quay berth deepening (15.5m); Pier 1 expansion with Salisbury Island infill; Maydon Wharf quay wall reconstruction; and the development of a cruise passenger vessel terminal.

The Mercury