The IMO invades ports

In this faster-track, ever more digital world, surely one of the greatest pleasures is still to bump into old friends and colleagues unexpectedly.

And so it was at the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Special Ports Event, where discussions highlighted the sheer diversity of challenges faced by ports around the world.

“The ports have invaded the IMO,” one delighted delegate was heard to declare. This really was a case of “Fancy seeing you here” – or, indeed, “Fancy seeing me here.”

Incredible to report, this was the first ever dedicated port event held by the IMO. Kitack Lim reminded his audience that his last position before being elected to as IMO secretary general was as president of Busan Port Authority – “and during that time, I had the opportunity to see the value of encouraging stronger links between ships and ports to enhance the efficiency of maritime transport”.

Port industry challenges

The port industry faces many challenges today that mirror those faced by the shipping community, he said: “The operational complexities of dealing with larger ships; the need to manage congestion; the need to do more with less space; the continual pressure to enhance safety in and around port areas and to embrace greener technologies and working practices, are among the specific challenges that the entire supply chain needs to address. So too are the need to reduce the administrative burden on ship masters, seafarers and shipping companies, and to reduce the time scales of the ships and cargo at ports.”


This was the first time that the IMO had organised an event such as this dealing with facilitation and port security matters, he said.

The event was organised in partnership with the IAPH, whose president, Santiago Garcia Mila, referred to the push for the Single Window ‘reporting once’ concept and the drive for trade facilitation, and highlighted port community systems as the ‘cornerstones of what we today call smart ports’.

IAPH is taking steps to establish a coordinated ‘round table’ of port interest in the IMO, he added.

As to the topics, there were sessions on the electronic exchange of information and Single Window, ways to improve the facilitation of international maritime traffic, best practices for improving coordination at ports, and security awareness.

The march of digitalisation

In the onward march of digitalisation, there was, delegates heard, a danger that some ports might get left behind, if shipping lines bypass those unable to provide the infrastructure and digital services they require.

“We monitor ports’ connectivity with shipping,” said Jan Hoffmann, chief of UNCTAD’s trade logistics branch. “We do observe, and have to some extent quantified, that the smallest and weakest ports, island states and countries find it increasingly difficult to have all the necessary infrastructure – data, physical, etc. – and the supply of the necessary services, not just for ships but for digital connectivity.

“So while the overall network improves, those at the margins and edge are increasingly dropping out. That is certainly a challenge for us to make sure we reduce this digital connectivity divide.”

Building a better shipping industry

Clemence Cheng, ceo of the Port of Felixstowe and managing director of Hutchison Ports Europe, said he supported the setting up of a forum where shipping lines, ports and other stakeholders could discuss the major challenges ahead. It was, he said, essential that all those involved should put their differences aside ‘in order to build a better shipping for a better future’.

There was no point, for example, in shipping building super-efficient ships that ports can’t handle, he said.

Hadiza Bala Usman, managing director of the Nigerian Ports Authority, said there was a need for the IMO to focus more on achieving an effective implementation of existing conventions ‘by prioritising multiple agency capacity building initiatives at the national level rather than the single focal point approach’.

The IMO’s FAL Convention may need an amendment or a protocol that would deal with the land side of maritime traffic facilitation in order to help countries improve on smooth, fast and cost-effective cargo movement in and out of ports, she added. “In this regard, the IMO and its FAL committee may consider creating a subcommittee on ports and trade facilitation.”

International Port Community Systems Association (IPCSA) secretary general Richard Morton highlighted the four pillars of trade facilitation – transparency, simplification, harmonisation and standardisation – and Roger Butturini of the US Coast Guard discussed the DIKW pyramid (data, information, knowledge, wisdom).

The human element

But across the discussions, there was also one clear message. As Cheng said: “Don’t forget the human element. People who don’t know each other don’t cooperate together.”

Or as Enrique Piraino, head of concessions at the Port of Valparaiso, put it: “It doesn’t matter how advanced your systems are, in the end it is about humans – humans make it work.”

So we can all still talk to each other. What a relief.

Posted 13 June 2018

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Felicity Landon

Ports Correspondent, Seatrade Maritime