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Disaster management for shipping and ports

Natural disasters and extreme weather events have recently caused major shipping disturbances, but steps are being taken to boost risk management

9 March 2023
Trade patterns are often disrupted in the wake of natural disasters. Credit: Tom Fisk

Resilience is a core requirement of the supply chain, making unpredictable, large-scale natural disasters, such as the earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria in February, particularly problematic. 

Trade patterns are often disrupted in the wake of natural disasters, with cargo being diverted to close-by ports and massive delays in the supply chain. Carriers destined for Iskenderun shifted bookings to the neighbouring Port of Mersin, and a Maersk advisory said that the earthquake had a “significant impact on logistics operations in the area”. According to visibility platform project44, the export dwell time at that port totalled 3.6 days just before the earthquake hit, soaring to a peak of 21.1 days on February 16.

Of course, shipping is not the only mode of transportation seriously impacted. Turkey’s Transport Ministry has reported that a total of 1275km of railway lines have been severely damaged or destroyed in the Kahramanmaraş region. Recovery could take a long time – and it is likely that progress will be underpinned by public investment. 

While extreme weather and natural disasters can affect ports in many parts of the world, they are particularly damaging to terminals in developing countries, such as those in small island developing states. Ports there often have inefficient infrastructure, and their economies are usually very dependent on maritime imports. 

Indeed, the impact of extreme weather is illustrated by Typhoon Yutu in 2018, which forced all ports in Guam and Northern Mariana Islands to close for almost a week, severely disrupting trade flows. 

However, actions are being taken to improve the disaster resilience of these ports, with the Asian Development Bank financing the upgrading of port infrastructure in the Pacific. This includes rebuilding the infrastructure and breakwater of Apia port, an important project as this is the only gateway for international cargo in Samoa. 

Elsewhere, International Association of Ports and Harbors’ (IAPH) Risk and Resilience Guidelines were introduced in January 2023. These are centred around three steps – developing and inventorising risk, managing stakeholders and defining resilience – to build port continuity plans for crises including adverse weather. 

As part of this IAPH is collating case studies to help ports better prepare for eventualities. Its first case studies include one by Port of Los Angeles on how it is addressing the risk of floods and sea level rise.

Preparing for extreme weather is especially important given that climate change is expected to make it more severe and frequent. IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (2022) highlights the impact of climate change, including more frequent extreme weather events, warning that these, along with projected sea level rise, could damage port infrastructure significantly. 

It suggests that a “Transformational adaptation approach to address climate impacts on maritime activities and increase security would relocate ports, change centres of demand, reduce shipping distances, or shorten supply chains”.