Maputo Could Be a Mega-Ship Port
The Port of Maputo in Mozambique has excellent development potential. It is located along the east coast of Southern Africa, to the north of the Ports of Durban and Richards Bay. It is one of several ports that connect via road and railway line to South Africa’s mega-metropolis of Johannesburg that is still Africa’s leading financial hub.
Roads and railway lines from ports of Maputo, Durban, Richards Bay, East London and Port Elizabeth cross over and pass through tunnels of the extensive and high elevations of Dragon Mountain (Drakensberg). Maputo offers the shortest railway distance to Johannesburg and so could be further developed at lowest cost.
Challenge at Durban
While South Africa has plans to expand Africa’s busiest container port, the Port of Durban, there has been much public opposition from groups of Durban residents to future port expansion. Durban has also experienced the ongoing problem of silt/sand build up at the port entrance that has a nominal depth of 12.8 meters (42 feet). This may be its natural depth caused the combination of the south flowing ocean current and wave action that stirs up sand to the north of the northward pointing entrance to the port. The entrance to the 20 meter (66 foot) deep Richards Bay is perpendicular to the ocean current.
The overland connection between Durban and Johannesburg operates near capacity and upgrading the railway line with its multiplicity of tunnels is both a costly and formidable undertaking. While some containers from overseas may arrive near Port Elizabeth, the overland distance to Johannesburg is extensive.
It may cost less to upgrade and develop the railway line between Maputo and Johannesburg to double track than to redevelop the Durban – Johannesburg line. There may even be scope to explore the possible future operation of super-wide railway container technology that straddles over double track railway lines, to increase the number of containers trains carry.
Unexpected Mega Ships
When expansion of the Panama Canal was first evaluated, the largest container ships entering service carried some 12,000 TEU and were to be later dubbed neo-Panamax ships. At the time, South Africa evaluated the logistics of developing a transshipment port for neo-Panamax ships near Port Elizabeth, where ships sailing to and from East Africa, West Africa, South America and Asia would converge. Then the unexpected happened when Maersk began to explore the possibility of a container ship built to a much larger scale than the neo-Panamax ships and capable of sailing through the Suez Canal between Europe and Asia.
The superior economics of the larger container ship made the concept attractive on the trans-Pacific services between Asia and the west coast of North America. Several major ports internationally were dredged and modified to berth the mega-ships and articles appeared suggesting that such ships could operate the South America –Asia service, sailing via Southern Africa. Plans were subsequently announced to dredge Port of Santos and the develop Port of Pecem located on the northern outskirts of Fortaleza, Brazil that could serve as a transshipment port for smaller ships that could connect to South American and Africa ports.
Revising the Logistics
The development of South American ports for mega-size container ships creates and uncertain future for South Africa’s transshipment port for neo-Panamax size of container ships. Mega-size ships that sail via Southern Africa between South America and Asia can be built to a larger size than Suezmax container ships, perhaps up to 26,000 or 27,000 TEU and even extend the range of operation between South America and Western Europe.
One option is that future mega-ships that sail the Western Europe – Brazil – Asia service sail by South African ports while another option would be to investigate future prospects at Port of Maputo.
South Africa’s second largest city is Cape Town which is the closest South African port to the sea route that mega-size container ships would sail between Asia and South America. Sections of Table Bay just outside the port area are 15.6 meters (51 feet) deep. The combination of dredging Table Bay and either extending the present breakwater or building a new breakwater could provide a deep water zone for mega-ships. Deep dredging a section of the port plus some port reconstruction could provide a quay to berth mega-size container ships that would undergo partial unloading and partial loading at Cape Town.
Options for Maputo
Sections of Port of Maputo were dredged from 9.8 meters (32 feet) to over 14 meters (46 feet). However, unlike Port of Durban that has no river flowing into the port area, several rivers flow into Maputo Bay and could carry sand/silt into the port. There may be future need to install deflector barriers along some sections of some rivers to redirect the silt toward the river banks, from where local industries may excavate the silt for use in construction or sent to farms. A rock breakwater northeast of the port area may be able to deflect the sand laden ocean current toward ocean.
At present, the DP Ports container terminal is 300 meters (984 feet) in length. The combination of lengthening the quay to over 400 meters (1,312 feet) and dredging the channel between the container terminal and deeper water at Maputo Bay would enhance prospects for mega-size container ships to call at Port of Maputo while sailing between South America and Asia. These ships would undergo a partial unloading and reloading of containers to/from the Greater Johannesburg area.
Further development of the Port of Maputo could make it suitable for transshipment of containers involving smaller ships that would connect to Kenyan and Tanzanian ports.
There has been public opposition at Durban to expanding Africa’s busiest container terminal. The overland connection between Durban and Johannesburg is operating at capacity, with a massive projected future increase in container traffic along this link.
Within the next few years, mega-size container ships will sail between Asia and South America, with a possible port of call in Southern Africa. Port of Maputo has prospects for future expansion and future development of the container terminal to berth larger ships after the quay is extended and navigation channel dredged to greater depth.
Port of Maputo could require future breakwaters to limit future silt build up.
The comparatively short railway line between Maputo and the Pretoria – Johannesburg area would cost less to upgrade than the railway lines extending inland from Durban, East London and Port Elizabeth.
While Cape Town has potential for future development to berth mega-size container ships, perhaps such development would occur after development of Port of Maputo.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.