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Cartagena Deepening Bocachica Canal in Colombia

Like their counterparts in all major ports in the Americas, leaders at the port of Cartagena, Colombia, would like to deepen the port to accommodate post-Panamax ships. But unlike most other ports, what’s holding back this expansion isn’t money: it is history.

The entrance channel to Cartagena Bay weaves between two islands, both of which have historic forts on them that are protected for being part of Colombian and world heritage. The channel, called Bocachica, is naturally deep and could be dredged deeper, but at some points is narrow enough to only accommodate one large ship at a time—a logistical problem in a port as busy as Cartagena. Widening the channel is impossible without damaging centurie sold historic sites.

A new and well-financed energy port complex in the bay offered to solve this problem by dredging a new entrance channel to the bay in an area where width is no limitation. But that proposed new channel, called the Varadero, proved to have limitations of its own: it is naturally shallow, and dredging it deeper would require tearing up coral reef, an ecological and political non-starter.

Short-term Solution

But with the inauguration of the expanded Panama Canal looming, and the added pressure of the massive new energy terminal under construction at the port, the government is moving forward in the only way it can. In the short-term, the narrow Bocachica channel will be dredged deeper to accommodate post-Panamax ships, and the terminals will put up with the slow traffic through the channel. In the longer term, the authorities will continue to work on an ecological solution to deepen Varadero, or perhaps scout out other routes for an entirely new entrance channel.

Andrés Pachón, a spokesman for the Regional Port Society of Cartagena (Sociedad Portuaria Regional de Cartagena, or SPRC), noted that while the solution isn’t perfect, it is much better than nothing. “Here in the harbor, we have the capacity and the depth and the permits to receive post-Panamax ships. But if you don’t have a canal they can enter through—well, then you have a serious problem,” he said.

Bocachica was once dredged to 15.25 meters (50 feet), but a lack of maintenance dredging has resulted in shouling up to 12 meters (40 feet). This problem is now being solved. In early November, Boskalis dredges are scheduled to begin maintenance dredging of the Bocachica channel to restore a 15.25-meter (50-feet) depth. In mid-2014, a dredging company will be hired to dig to 19.5 meters (64 feet), deep enough to accommodate post-Panamax ships, Pachón said. The dredging is not expected to take more than 30 days, he said.

Deeper Channel Still Needed

The deeper channel will become even more urgent in the next year, when the new energy and multi-purpose terminal, Puerto Bahia, is scheduled to begin operations. The privately funded project will consist of one liquid terminal and one dry bulk terminal. It has been under construction by developer Pacific Infrastructure for over a year, but it received a big boost in August with a $150 million loan from the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation, and another in October when it secured a $370 million loan from Brazilian bank Itaú BBA, with the help of legal advisor Milbank, Tweed, Hadley and McCloy.

Once completed, it will serve as a hub for crude oil from Colombia’s Rubiales, Piriri and Quifa oil fields, which will be processed in the nearby new oil refinery, also constructed and owned by Pacific Infrastructure. The port project will have a storage capacity of three million barrels of crude oil and derivatives, and a port throughput of 54 million barrels. It will connect to a new oil pipeline and will have facilities to handle dry bulk and general cargo.

Some operations at the new terminal could begin as early as next May, although the project  won’t be completed until early 2015, Pacific Infrastructure General Manager Juan Pablo Cepeda said.

No dredging will be necessary at the two terminals at Puerto Bahia. The liquid terminal is being built at the end of a 700-meter (2,296- foot) wharf into the bay, and has a natural depth of 22 meters (72 feet), said Cepeda. The dry terminal is on a 1,090-meter (3,576-foot) wharf and has a natural depth of 16 meters (52 feet). “So we won’t need to dredge a single cubic meter,” Cepeda said.

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