Port resilience vital as climate change, pandemic risks grow—maritime chiefs

Global port leaders are highlighting the urgent need to strengthen the ability of ports to adapt to crises, such as pandemics and climate change, to ensure people and businesses get the products they need.

With the growing risks linked to climate change and pandemics, it is important that “ports should become key resilient partners for supply chain managers,” said Aurelio Martínez, president of Spain’s Valencia Port Authority, who spoke at the recent United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s (UNCTAD) TrainForTrade Port Management Week.

“Crises like the pandemic have reminded society of the importance of port-based logistics for the safety and security of our global wellbeing,” added Martínez.

About 80% of the products traded worldwide—from food to fuel to electronics—are loaded and unloaded in ports. So when disasters and crises disrupt ports, they inflict economic and social damage on a global scale.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, freight rates hit record highs, and they have again soared as the war in Ukraine disrupts transport logistics and causes port congestion. Prices of goods have soared as a result, UNCTAD’s analysis shows.

The consequences of climate change will increasingly hit ports worldwide, affecting the businesses and people who depend on them. This is especially true for island nations, which rely on ports for almost all trade, said UNCTAD.

Hurricane Dorian, for example, cost the Bahamas an estimated $3.4 billion in 2019, with a large part of the losses coming from transport infrastructure damage.

In the Philippines, when a severe storm damages a port serving one of the nation’s 7,000 islands, it cuts off the local population’s lifeline for days or even weeks.

Managers shared the strategies their ports are implementing to combat climate change.

“Disaster response and management plans have to be included in the business continuity plans, and these plans have to be regularly updated,” said Philippine Ports Authority assistant general manager Hector Miole.

“Traditionally, we would plan for the next 50 years. But in the changing environment, we need to have shorter terms for planning—maybe only 10 or 20 years,” Miole said.

A good forecast system, he added, can help port authorities handle severe storms better by allowing them to plan for how disasters will affect different ports and devise how to maintain operations.

Luis Ibarra, president of the Las Palmas Port Authority in Spain, said the port’s sustainable strategy includes using offshore wind power, more onshore power supply technology to help reduce carbon dioxide and other emissions, and planting algae in the port’s waters to capture CO2.

“We are adapting to new challenges and realities,” Ibarra said.

The port managers agreed that advancing digitalization and cybersecurity is key to improving port resilience.

In addition to streamlining aspects of maritime trade, such as customs clearance processes, digital technologies allow ports to minimize human interaction while remaining operational in times of pandemic.

“COVID-19 showed us the importance of having reached at least a certain level of digitalization. Otherwise, many ports would have been shut down and the economy would have suffered even more,” said the Ghana Port Authority’s director general Michael Luguje.

But while increasing the use of digital technologies has improved shipping processes and made ports more resilient to the effects of COVID-19, it also entails certain risks.

A cyber attack, for example, could interrupt operations and inflict financial losses on port actors and economic damage on local businesses and populations.

To reduce the risks associated with digitalization, the managers said all transport actors interacting with a port should be integrated into the port’s digital system.

Such integration would also make the system more efficient and useful.

“When ports provide infrastructure and services for vessels, the harbour is responsible of potential risks. This responsibility cannot be outsourced. It should be the same with digital risk management,” said the chairman of Ireland’s Drogheda Port Company, Joseph Hiney.

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