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The urgent need for port climate resilience

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The world set new monthly temperature records for 10 consecutive months to March 2024, a bleak warning of the need to ensure ports are prepared for the climate challenges to come.

A study by the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute (ECI) found almost nine in 10 world ports are exposed to three or more climactic and geophysical hazards, including cyclones, flooding and earthquakes. The study found port-specific risk of $7.5bn and an 
additional $63.1bn of trade at risk annually. ‘Our study shows ports are at the forefront of climate impacts. It underlines adaptation of ports is urgently needed,’ said researcher Jasper Verschuur.The report picked out hotspots for exposure to multiple hazards in Japan, the US West Coast, New Zealand, Taiwan and parts of China. Port-wide risk strategies were highlighted as essential to overcome any barriers between state-owned critical infrastructure and often private-owned terminal and port assets. 

The rise in global mean sea level since 1900 is 21cm and the rate of increase has accelerated. NASA documented a 103.8 mm increase in sea levels since 1993, something it called unprecedented in 2,500 years. Forecasts for sea level rises vary depending on greenhouse gas emissions; an intermediate scenario puts sea level rises at up to 1.02mtr by 2100 compared to the 1995-2014 average. Although a low likelihood event, the fast disintegration of the polar ice caps could lead to a rise of 5mtr by 2150.Of particular concern is the repeated upwards revision of global sea level forecasts in recent decades.


Industrial impacts

The impact of short- or long-term port closures due to climate impacts is not limited to the shipping and logistics; the effect ripples along supply chains for key industries. A paper in the journal Nature Climate Change explored industries exposed to port closures due to extreme weather events, both from a consumption and industry output perspective. An average downtime risk of 1.4 days was found, with 5% of ports exposed to than five days of downtime risk. The study also considered the knock-on effect experienced by port trading partners due to delays.

Expanding these risks with vessel data and freight flows, specific industrial supply chains most at risk from climaterelated port disruptions were found, topped by wood and paper manufacturing in Taiwan and South Korea, and mining and quarrying in France. Looking at the supply chains with more than $1bn of output, Hong Kong’s mining and quarrying industry, textiles and clothing in Mauritius, and electrical and machinery in the Philippines were most at risk.


Seatrade MaritimeGlobal Ports Report 2024 The urgent need for port climate resilience


High water 

For the Port of Antwerp-Bruges, climate change risks necessitate preparation for both high and low waters. To protect access to the port, loading and unloading, and business operations, a collaboration has been undertaken with the Flanders Department of Mobility and Public Works 
and other partners. The project was triggered in part by upward revisions of forecasts for sea level rises and a need to upgrade the Flemish authorities’ Coastal Safety Master plan. In place since 2011, the plan aimed to protect the region from sea level rises of 80cm to 2050. The newer Complex Coastal Vision project aims to protect the coast and hinterland through 2100 from sea rises of up to three metres, exploring the impact such a rise would have on the region and appropriate designs of effective coastal protection strategies.‘We anticipate a gradual rise of up to three metres,’ said 
Stefaan Ides, Port Area Development Expert at Port of Antwerp-Bruges. ‘We also consider higher waves during storms. The current proposal on the table involves raising the quay walls in the port area of Zeebrugge.’ 

However, as with many ports and their hinterlands, rising sea levels is not the sole climate challenge facing AntwerpBruges. The current greatest risk to the port is a lack of water, with a particular threat to Antwerp from the impact of drought.‘We are in a region vulnerable to drought. According to the World Resources Institute, Belgium ranks 18th globally in countries facing the most water stress,’ said Annelies Oeyen, Water Program Manager at Port of Antwerp-Bruges. Planning for low water operations has led to the development of an app at the dock level that signals when extra water needs to be buffered. In times of drought and low levels in the Schelft, water can be pumped into the docks when the natural flow is halted. The port also has a water management strategy with rainwater capture areas and leak detection for the locks.


Low water

The potential of drought to impact the maritime industry has been demonstrated over the past year by ongoing restrictions at the Panama Canal. Transits through the canal were cut by a third from a usual operating capacity of 36 transits per day to 24 from January 2024 as authorities attempted to preserve the low waters of Gatun Lake that feeds the canal’s locks. Disruption in the Panama Canal has been compounded by the attacks on shipping in the Red Sea since October 2023, limiting the options available to reroute and rebalance supply chains.

Some improvement came at last in March when the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) announced an extra three slots per day from mid-to-late March. The expansion allowed Maersk to reinstate its Oceania-North America service through the canal from May, a route it effectively cut into two separate loops linked by a rail land bridge to move freight across Panama. Contextualising the impact of the restrictions, UNCTAD estimated that the US accounted for 72% of the volume of cargo transiting through the Canal in 2021, around 12% of its trade volume by weight, around 21.3% of exports, 5.7% of imports.

The analysis also showed the importance of the route for South American West Coast countries. The share of Ecuador’s trade volume passing through the canal in 2021 was 25.6%, Chile’s was 22% and Peru’s was 21.8%. These figures are shares of all foreign trade by volume, not just seaborne trade. With the correlation between a lower number of trading partners and a higher risk of knock-on downtime due to a lack of diversification options, boosting the number of trade relationships is one avenue to increased climate resilience. Resilience boosting The recommendations to ports for mitigating the operational, physical, and commercial risks to themselves and their trade partners reflect the range of risks, potential economic damage, and individual geographical and meteorological considerations.

Forecasting systems can help with immediate preparations ahead of extreme weather and flooding; digitalisation and streamlining procedures improves port efficiency in normal operation and can aid in clearing vessel backlogs in the aftermath of port closures. Increasing flood defences, renewing and reinforcing quay walls for higher water levels and flood events, improving drainage systems, installing redundant power sources and dredging are all considerations for ports looking to minimise climate impacts. Disaster plans should also be in place and regularly renewed. A final consideration for governments looking to manage their climate risk exposure is more concerning to the ports sector – reducing dependence on maritime trade through enhanced domestic production.


UNCTAD ESTIMATES, BASED ON DATA FROM ACP AND UNCRAD TRADE VOLUME STATISTICSGlobal Ports Report 2024 Share of trade national volume routed through Panama Canal in 2021 Graph


Take a look at other groundbreaking news on our Global Ports Report 2024.


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