The importance of Delta ports to Nigeria’s development
The Delta Ports are a quadruplet of seaports sited along the Niger Delta coastline in the port towns of Warri, Sapele, Koko and Burutu, all in Delta State and in their named order of sizes. The ports belong to second generation Nigerian ports, coming after the Lagos Port Complex and the Port Harcourt Port. They were created as national emergencies to handle the excessive post-war reconstruction cargo that the Lagos Port could not absorb in the aftermath of the Nigerian Civil War which spanned 1967 to 1970. Prior to the war, the Old Warri Port was owned and operated by Holts Transport, a British colonial shipping firm while Burutu Port was owned and operated by the United African Company of Nigeria (UACN). All four ports were subsequently rehabilitated to the standard of national ports under the management and control of Nigerian Ports Authority in the 1970s.
From that modest beginning of serving national exigency purposes of the post-war era, the Delta Ports accomplished tremendous economic feat for Nigeria during the oil-boom years, which saw the ports handling captive cargo destined for the southeast and the south-south regions. Equipment for oil exploration, oil production and oil servicing used by international oil companies (IOCs) dominated the ports’ traffic for the most parts of the 1970s up to the 1990s before the rival Onne Port in Rivers State competed away the traffic. This period also saw to the ports’ improvements and upgrading in different measures.
Delta Ports remain unique with enormous capacity yearning for development. First, because of their strategic location in the heart of Nigeria’s oil and gas mineral deposits and their proximity to the Atlantic, they are adjudged as the port of the future, which would fit snugly in the country’s agenda of oil and gas industry deregulation as they would serve as the hub of modular oil refineries and marine transportation of petroleum products to neighbouring countries and beyond. Besides this, the ports are strategically located to serve as logistics bases for the export of gas by the Escravos Gas-To-Liquid (EGTL) facilities that are about to commence production with a capacity next to non in sub-Saharan Africa – converting more than 325 million cubic feet of natural gas per day to GTL (gas-to-liquid) diesel and GTL-naphtha. By the time the ETGL project is actualised, Delta Ports and their host towns and surroundings are certain to become new economic growth poles that will attract investors, professionals and artisans seeking opportunities to harness. Trade and commerce are certain to follow such huge enterprise in the region as a natural consequence. In terms of hinterland accessibility, Delta Ports provide about the shortest routes for cargo haulage to catchment states of Anambra, Imo, Enugu, Delta, Edo, Kogi, Ondo, and Benue, when compared with other operational ports. The ports proximity to these states is an aid to freight logistics and distribution planning. The east-west road’s arterial connection through primary and secondary lateral roadsto the named states engenders quickturn-around time for trucks to and fro the ports.
However, going by indices of port productivity and performance, particularly ship traffic and tonnage of cargo handled per given period, on aggregate, the Delta Ports have performed sub-optimally due to low vessel patronage for more than a decade, ostensibly out of fear by ship owners of damage to keel and hull of ships calling the ports due to the ports’ low water depths and unsafe harbours. Reports have it that the Escravos breakwater is submerged and the channel silted, having been last dredged in 1997. Over the past five years, clarion calls have been made to the federal government repeatedly by pilots and other stakeholders that make use of the Escravos channel for it to be rehabilitated.
Paradoxically, the Western Ports of Lagos continue to be congested, mainly because nearly all of the traffic that should behandled by the Delta Ports get stemmed at Lagos, only to be transported by road to their various destinations across the country. The costs of this circumvention of the Delta Ports to the economy are only too obvious – higher landing costs to importers, higher risks of loss and damage to cargo with higher insurance premium (that is where goods are insured at all), heavy damage to inter-state highways with resulting short life span due to pressure from articulated vehicles, and loss of productive man-hours amongst other costs that are not quantifiable.
Hence, it is seen as a revolutionary action for industry watchers to hear that life is being breath back to the Delta Ports via dredging of the Escravos channel and rehabilitation of its breakwater. The company that has been saddled with the responsibility of accomplishing the dredging work is no less than Dredging International Services Nigeria Ltd (DISN), a firm known globally for its technical expertise and experience inproviding marine and waterway solutions. Having been carrying out similar and much more complex port and harbour projects all over the world. Since 1991, DISN has continually and successfully delivered turn-key port and marine construction projects for various clients in Nigeria, key among them are the Nigerian Ports Authority, Nigeria LNG Ltd, Rivers State Government, Oil and Gas Companies, NIWA, and the Dangote group. The company is already on site working in the Escravos with its dredger “MELLINA”, “MARIEKE” and is also replacing Aids to Navigation. With such expertise deployed to handle dredging works, DISN will soon make the Escravos Channel accessible to all sizes of ships to navigate to all the Delta Ports.
As ports are globally acknowledged as development agents and growth drivers, it goes without saying that fixing the Delta Ports will not only reverse their fortunes as sea-land interface structures but will once again revive the once active but now dying market out-posts which the port towns of Warri, Sapele, Koko and Burutu before, during and after colonial times were noted for.For instance, historically Warri town was popular as a commercial port and market centre for local produce. It assumed added economic importance with the discovery of natural gas and petroleum in the area, and the establishment of a Petroleum Training Institute in 1972, plus a petroleum refinery in 1978. Today Warri with its environs is synonymous with oil and gas from the upstream, mid-stream to the downstream markets, and is a modestly thriving market in consumer goods.
Piecing together the commercial historical antecedents of the Delta ports and their host towns would reveal that they are as important today as they were over 50 years ago. If these port towns could make that much impact when Nigeria’s population was a fraction of what it is today, they certainly would do much more with more youthful and energetic populace if life were breathed into them. That breather is finally coming in the form of the dredging of the Escravos channel, and the repair of its breakwater.
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