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Guyana Officials Seeking Solution for River Maintenance Problems

Guyana Officials Seeking Solution for River Maintenance Problems
By Katie Worth

In the 1980s, when ships hauling bauxite were flowing out of Georgetown, Guyana, like a tide, the Demerara River was dredged to a respectable 22.5 feet.

Guyana’s Maritime Administration Department had recently purchased a shiny new hopper suction dredge named Steve N, and the dredge and its crew cleared away the soft mud at the bottom of the river, maintaining the 22.5-foot depth and allowing the ships to glide comfortably in and out of Demerara Harbor well loaded.

But times have changed.

Since then, the aluminum ore trade has mostly moved to other ports. The Steve N is now 29 years old and has slowed with age: even when it’s working, it’s less efficient than it once was. It had to be dry-docked for repair in 2011 and was out of commission for more than a year. It just began operating again at the start of July. Because of the slowdown in dredging, some of the soft mud at the bottom of the river has condensed to the point where Steve N’s suction cannot remove it.

With all these problems – and no immediate fixes – the 12-mile channel through the Demerara has shrunk from a depth of 22.5 feet to a mere 13 feet.

“And it could definitely get worse,” said Andrew Astwood, chairman of the Shipping Association of Guyana.

Ports around the world struggle to find money for the ongoing cost of maintaining their shipping channels, but Demerara Harbor is an example of what can happen when inadequate maintenance gets out of hand. Demerara Harbor handles some 80 percent of Guyana’s imports and exports, and with the clearance creeping ever shallower, shippers can only come and go at the highest of tides – and even then, they cannot be more than partially loaded.

The increasingly shallow channel has already hurt the port city’s cruise ship business, and Astwood worries more damage will be done.

“We have been attracting cruise vessels, and of course we have other liners willing to come, but because of the draft they cannot make this port,” Astwood said. “We know recently Carnival (Cruise Lines) was interested in sending more boats here, but they have to be very selective and only use their smaller boats.”

This in turn is affecting the businesses that would benefit from more visitors.

“We have a growing tourism sector and I have no doubt that if the port were deeper, we would have more business,” he said.

Many other industries have been affected as well. Last year, petroleum company SOL Guyana’s then-general manager Ken Figaro told a room full of clients, customers and press that the silted river was costing the company millions of dollars, because ships could not be fully loaded. The situation has not improved since then, and is still a major problem and cost, said current general manager Ivan Hanley.

Government officials admit the maintenance has been woefully inadequate. Makar Dajh, superintendent of surveys for the Maritime Administration Department, said that maintenance had been ongoing, but that the Steve N was simply not up to the task of maintaining depth on its own.
“It’s not that dredging was neglected,” he said. “It’s just been inadequate.”

He noted that the Steve N has not only been solely responsible for dredging the navigable channel through the Demerara River, but also the Demerara harbor and its berths. Dajh said there has been money budgeted this year to purchase a new dredge, and the Maritime Administration Department is looking into the costs of such a project.

But the government has struggled to find the money necessary to solve this problem. An analysis five years ago indicated that to return the channel to its former depth would cost $20 million, and that cost has since gone up.

Guyana’s other major shipping channel is the Berbice River, where most of the country’s bauxite is now exported. The river is naturally deeper than the Demerara, and the bauxite companies have contributed to maintenance dredging there, said Astwood. There is a blueprint for a new deep-water harbor there, and some people have accused government officials of turning their money and attention towards that project and away from the aching Demerara.

“There’s a lot of talk about it, and a lot of excitement. But our association is trying to ensure that Demerara is given an equal amount of attention,” said Astwood.

The shipping organization isn’t just demanding solutions – they’re offering one. In May, SAG proposed that every ship entering or leaving Guyana be charged $1 per ton of cargo, which would go into a special fund that could pay for a new dredge, or contract a company to do the maintenance work. Guyana’s Commerce Secretary Irfaan Ali accepted the proposal and promised to take it to a cabinet subcommittee on infrastructure.

Astwood admits it’s not a perfect solution – that $1 a ton will be passed on to consumers. However, once the route is dredged and ships can come and go with more cargo, the costs of shipping will go down, and consumers will begin to notice it in their pocketbooks.

So far, at least one private company has decided to take care of the problem themselves. Two years ago, civil works construction company Gaico Construction Inc. began conducting mechanical backhoe dredging for wharf owners. This January, the company purchased an IMS 5012 LP Versi-Dredge for $450,000, to dredge small canals and do land reclamation, said Gaico Managing Director Komal Singh. The dredge recently conducted a land reclamation project for Guyana Oil Company.

The 5012 LP is a small self-propelled dredge equipped with a 108-inch-long horizontal cutter bar with replaceable hardened steel excavator blades. The pump has a 12-inch discharge and 9.75-inch suction, and can handle objects six inches in diameter.

Two patented Starwheels provide propulsion and maneuverability.

Victor Tirado, an engineer from IMS sister company LWT in Wisconsin, oversaw the installation and startup of the dredge, and Mike Young and Ryan Horton from IMS were present at the launching.

There has been so much need for the dredge, the company is now investing in a tug and barge to complement the dredge, and will place a Super Long Reach Excavator on the barge so the machines can operate continuously regardless of the tide. The company is also inspecting a trailing hopper dredge which would be able to help Steve N dredge the main navigation channel, if the government chose to contract it.
Guyana is in dire need of these services, Singh said.

“There is a huge need for the channel to be dredged to allow larger vessels to enter the port, thus offering economies of scale for the shipping industry, which will ultimately have a positive effect on the economy at large,” he said.

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