By Joseph Onuike,
Maritime and Public Affairs Commentator.
Every port city – from Le Havre in France, to Santos in Brazil; Shanghai in China; Perth in Australia; and Tema in Ghana – is a growth pole of some sorts, impacting its surrounding towns and villages in trade, commerce, tourism and real estate. The reason is obvious: as ships dock in the cities’ harbours offloading and loading merchandize, they seek attention from various husbandmen including but not limited to: port agents, ship managers, cargo inspectors, marine surveyors, third-party logistics providers, notary publics, chandlers, customs, port authorities, loss adjusters and stevedores. This complement of port professionals constitute a chunk of sojourners in port cities while their day-to-day professional activities further stimulate myriads of other support businesses including bunker supply, warehousing, hotels, clubs, recreational parks and entertainment centres, ship spares markets, shopping malls, engineering workshops, equipment leasing companies, bureau de changes, restaurants, and hospitals to attend to ailing crew members. With these direct and indirect businesses servicing ships that patronize port cities, the cities become a beehive of activities catalyzing development of their immediate surroundings and hinterlands.
The foregoing description is a close shot of what Warri as the chief port city of the Delta Ports used to be up until the early 2000s. The nationalization and upgrading of the Old Warri Port to international standard for deep-sea ocean-going vessels by the federal government following its acquisition from Holts Transport in December 1969, shot Warri town into prominence as a business and commercial hub of the Niger Delta. Warri Port which ranked amongst Nigeria’s second generation ports in the early 1970s handled millions of tons of post-war reconstruction cargoes which government ab initio ordered through the port of Lagos but which were subsequently diverted to Warri in order to ease off the protracted congestion of the Lagos Port which had exceeded its cargo handling capacity. Warri’s fortunes as a port city was further boosted in 1979, when government added the New Warri Port as part of third generation ports established to cope with cargo influx for the fast-growing economy engendered by the oil boom of the 1970s. With the Warri Refinery having been established a year earlier and already servicing tanker vessels, Warri then was a bustling port city that attracted young, ambitious professionals and businessmen and women.
But in a twist of fate, Warri’s fortunes began to dip with abandonment of its ports by vessels in droves by the turn of the millennium. The once vibrant international ship traffic was replaced with lighter crafts like workboats, fishing trawlers, offshore supply vessels and coastal tankers which ply Nigeria’s coastal and inland waterways. With the benefit of hindsight, the cause of Warri Ports’ abandonment by merchant ships is not unconnected with the abdication of capital and maintenance dredging of the Ports’ channel and harbour, served by the Escravos River which was reportedly last dredged in 1997. Hence for more than two decades, the Escravos Channel has remained shallow with accumulated silt while its breakwater is damaged, making it impossible for large-tonnaged ships to cross the breakwater to the Port via the Channel. It goes without saying that, without ships in its two ports to attend to, Warri town became bereft of ship husbandry and allied professionals, and this impacted negatively on the development of the city – a city that is reputed to be the 12th most populous in Nigeria according to the 2006 national census which putWarri’s population at 557,398.
It is therefore heartwarming to hear that the Nigerian Ports Authority has engaged the services of world-class dredging company, Dredging International Services Nigeria Ltd(DISN), to resume dredging of the Escravos Channel towards reopening the Warri Port to international ship traffic to restore its lost fortunes and missed opportunities. That DISN was able to secure this important waterway rehabilitation project is indeed a testament to its imprint as a global marine and waterway solutions expert. DISN has consistently and successfully delivered turn-key port and marine construction projects for select clients in Nigeria, amongst whom are the Nigerian Ports Authority, Nigeria LNG Ltd, Rivers State Government, , and the Dangote Group. With this level of technical expertise deployed in handling the dredging works, the Escravos Channel will soon be accessible to ships of all sizes to navigate not just the Warri Port, but other Delta Ports which the Escravos Channel serves.
It is worthy of note that the potentials for development which Warri as a port city currently holds by breathing life into the Old and New Warri Ports through dredging of the Escravos far surpasses what they held in decades past. Firstly, with Nigeria’s population growth rate put at 2.6 percent per annum, Warri’s approximately 560,000 citizens in 2006 could today be anything between 750,000 and 800,000. For an oil rich port city, this is still a manageable population that can be gainfully engaged in all facets of port and shipping activities as earlier enumerated when international traffic resumes at the ports. It is expected that the migration of youth from Warri due to the ports’ misfortune will not only be halted but reversed.
Secondly, as the era of modular refining of crude oil and gas gradually dawns, Warri with its numerous adjacent creeks being strategically positioned by government for sitting of the refineries will be requiring the services of more tankers which will have to navigate the Escravos channel and its tributaries to the refineries. The easier it is to navigate to and fro these refineries when they come on stream, the more productive and efficient they will be, and the more their contribution to the local Warri economy and the national economy at large. Dredging is the only key that can unlock access to the modular refineries.
Thirdly, having earlier established how port cities attract people, Warri is set to further witness increase in real estate development when its ports become open to international traffic after dredging of the Escravos Channel. Although there are presently no less than six public and private housing estates in Warri, real estate development is bound to grow beyond Warri central into surrounding towns of Effurun, Agbarho, Ughelli, Oghara, and Sapele amongst others.
Finally, the fortunes of Warri as being projected in this piece is bound to rub off well on tourism in the oil-rich city. Tourist attraction sites like The Palace of the Olu of Warri, The Warri Kingdom Royal Cemetery, Chief Nana’s Palace, Effurun Garden Park, The Red Mangrove Swamp, Abraka Turf and Country Club, Gordon’s River Resort, Delta Shopping Mall, Uwie Modern Market, Gold Tulip Hotels, and the Warri Township Stadium, besides the numerous restaurants and bars and other hospitality spots, will receive great boosts with increased shipping activities.