Chittagong shippers captive to worsening port congestion

Chittagong shippers captive to worsening port congestion

Chittagong Port.

This year, the situation at Chittagong again deteriorated. So far this June, vessels have had to wait more than a week at outer anchorage. (Above: Container ships line up at Chittagong Port.) Photo credit: Shutterstock.com.

Despite several measures taken to prevent it, seasonal congestion has again hit Chittagong Port, with ships waiting more than a week to unload/load cargo, with no viable, alternate transport options, at least not short term.

Every year, during the April-to-October period, Chittagong Port experiences severe congestion, which causes a vessel backup at the outer anchorage lasting from several days to more than a week. Last year, congestion was very bad, and as a result many operators avoided calling at Chittagong; some also imposed a surcharge to reduce their losses, as vessels’ wait times rose to more than 10 days.

This year, amid the month-long Ramadan, and week-long Eid al Fitr holiday, the situation at Chittagong again deteriorated. So far this June, vessels have had to wait more than a week at outer anchorage, and a long line of container ships and bulk carriers could be seen in that backlog of vessels. (Chittagong port officials are hopeful that congestion will lessen once several development initiatives, including construction of several terminals and jetties, are completed.)

What’s more, this year the port yard also is experiencing massive container congestion — the number of containers in the yard is well over its designed capacity — hampering the loading and unloading of containers from vessels.  

Last Friday, after week-long Bangladesh factory closures following the Eid holiday, the port yard contained 42,000 TEU. Meanwhile, 21 vessels were waiting at the port’s outer anchorage, according to Chittagong Port Authority traffic director Golam Sarwar.  

Further, because of the slow delivery of containers, the inland container depots (ICDs) also are faced with a stockpile of containers. Trucks are waiting in line for up to a week for ICDs to unload outbound cargo, as the increase in containers at the ICD has occupied their maneuvering space. As of Friday, about 2,500 trucks had been waiting to unload export cargo.  

As a result, truck wait times have risen to as long as a week to unload cargo — a new phenomenon for the Eid holiday. In recent months, trucks never had to wait such a long period with cargo onboard. The immediate impact of this truck congestion is that some containers may fail to get loaded onto designated vessels, thus a destination delay may occur.

Shippers — no other feasible port for export/import

Still, despite the severe congestion, Bangladeshi shippers have no other immediate options to Chittagong.

The country’s second seaport, Mongla, is a small port where only a few small vessels anchor. Mongla handles about 850 vessels and about 30,000 TEU per year.

Dhaka-based shippers do not prefer to use Mongla, as communication to and from the port is still complicated. Further, the port is still not connected by train, although construction work on a rail connection is under way. However, infrastructure connectivity to Mongla port is expected to improve substantially once the Padma multipurpose bridge construction project is complete, in about two years.

One hypothetical alternative to Chittagong Port for Bangladeshi shippers for export/import business is the use of Indian ports, experts say. The ICDs situated near Dhaka can facilitate it. Further, Kolkata Port Trust has welcomed the use of its port by Bangladeshi shippers.  

Unfortunately, however, it’s not possible to immediately start this new routing option because a bilateral policy amendment is needed to permit this activity.

Under the current policy, vessels plying between Bangladesh and India under coastal agreement only can carry bilateral cargo, not third country export/import cargo. A provision to carry third country cargo by these vessels would have to be incorporated into the standard operating procedure of the Indo-Bangla Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade.

An amendment of that scope, according to shipping ministry officials, may take at least six months to finalize, if the two counties agree to allow the process/transport option. 

As a result, for Bangladeshi shippers, the only port option is Chittagong Port. Chittagong handles 90 percent of the country’s seaborne trade, nearly 2.56 million TEU in 2017.