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Ecuador Seeks to Deepen Ports for Post-Panamax Ships

Ecuador has the distinction of being the only nation on the Pacific coast of South America without a port that can accommodate post-Panamax ships, but efforts to develop one have so far failed.

One effort to build a new port in a naturally deep harbor began eight years ago and no progress has been made. Officials have frequently discussed expanding the country’s existing ports, but the money to do so hasn’t appeared. And a recent contract to study the expansion of Guayaquil Port, paid for by the local municipality, has been a point of tension between that city’s mayor and the federal government.

As it stands, the small South American nation has four public port authorities with a combined capacity of about 800,000 containers a year. The majority of that is handled at Guayaquil Port, with a capacity of 25 million tons, and at the three ports in the jurisdiction of the Esmeraldas Port Authority, with a combined capacity of 30 million tons. The port at Puerto Bolivar is smaller but holds importance for banana exporters. The port in Manta handles just three million tons a year, but could be expanded to handle post-Panamax ships with a $70 million investment.

Guayaquil is Ecuador’s most populous city and busiest port. The municipality and its business sector have been clamoring for an expanded port, but the entrance channel is tricky to dredge, and funds have not been forthcoming.

In October, the mayor of Guayaquil Jaime Nebot took the project into his own hands and contracted a bathymetric study of the tricky portion of the 93-kilometer entrance channel, known as “Los Goles.” The study contractor, the Association of Geo-Studies Consulsua, was expected to take about three months to complete the $500,000 study. Nebot said the study will consider the cost and technical requirements for dredging the port from its current 9.5 meters (31.1 feet) up to 12 meters (39.3 feet).

David Jaramillo of Ecuador’s Ministry of Transport and Public Works’s subsecretary of Ports and Maritime Transportation, said that such a dredging project would require removing Los Goles – a rock formation in the middle of the entrance channel.

“The municipality wants to knock Los Goles down and dredge the access channel to 11 meters – 12 meters in low tide,” he said.

After the contract for the dredging study was announced, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa publicly criticized the plan, saying that for the municipality to dredge the harbor would require an increase in freight charges, which he said could affect the port and the nation’s competitiveness. However, Nebot said he plans to make a deal with the terminal concessionaires to pay for the dredging with an increase in port fees, without passing it on directly to shippers through freight charges.

Henry Kronfle, president of the Guayaquil Chamber of Commerce, in an August interview with Ecuadorian online publication Hoy, said it would cost about $70 million to do the dredging, not counting the cost of removing Los Goles. He highlighted the political struggle between the municipality and the federal government over who has oversight and who is responsible for finding funding for the expansion of the port. He said the municipality wants to be left alone to handle the dredging. He said the port handles about 90 percent of the container traffic of the country, but because of the lack of depth, the average ship arrives with an average of just 600 containers, he said.

Even if the dredging in Guayaquil is completed, it won’t be enough to handle post-Panamax ships. For that, the government of Ecuador has long planned on a brand-new port north of Guayaquil in a harbor near Posorja that has a natural depth of more than 15 meters (49 feet), and which would share part of Guayaquil’s entrance channel. Though the harbor’s depth makes it ideal for a port, there has never been any infrastructure constructed.

In 2006, Ecuadorian officials, including Nebot and ex-President Alfredo Palacio, participated in an official blessing and kick-off of the deep-water project with Spanish company Alianza Internacional Portuaria (Alimport). But the company delayed getting the permits for the project for two years. It finally obtained them in 2009, but more than four years later it has constructed “absolutely nothing,” government officials have stated.

Kronfle said the company has waffled long enough on the project and it’s time to try another route.

“The company that has had the concession (to construct the port) hasn’t done anything. For A or B motive, they didn’t make the investment, and we can’t wait eternally for them to decide what to do,” he said. “The concessionaire should return the concession so another company can invest in it – that’s what we ask.”

Meanwhile, the government has considered expanding its current facilities, particularly in Manta, which it says would be the easiest of the existing public ports to expand to 15 meters. In a radio broadcast in July, Correa announced that Manta could be expanded to handle post-Panamax-plus with an investment of $70 million. He said that investment would be made in the following months and the expansion could be complete by 2015. However, so far the project has been slow to begin.

If it succeeds in the Manta dredging project, as well as expansions at Guayaquil and Esmeraldas, Correa said the country will increase its capacity to ship from 30 million to 50 million tons annually.

That increase could help bolster the financial stability of the small nation, whose economy is heavily dependent on fruit, shrimp and petroleum exports.

Jaramillo said the expansions are still a high priority for the government.

“It’s a matter of mobility. The government wants to reorganize and bolster the ports, to make them more viable, more effective, more efficient,” Jaramillo said. “We want to create a strong network of ports, private and public, that can support our economy.”

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