One very important and strategic trade route in the shipping industry is the Panama canal which provides the shortest possible sea link between the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans. It also conveniently and economically provides the shortest sea route from the east coast of America to the west coast.
The size of the canal which was 110 feets wide (each lock) , about 50 miles (overall length) long and accommodating vessels pulling at most a 12.56 meters draft ( panamax vessels) had outlived its capacity hence necessitated the expansion of the canal.
The expansion works which began couple of years ago would involve the creation of new set of locks at both ends of the canal (Atlantic and Pacific), as well as the widening and deepening of the navigational channels. The project which is expected to be completed by late 2015 would enable the canal admit vessels pulling up to 18 meters draft and with a cargo capacity of about 14000 TEUs. Carriers would therefore begin to ply that route with post Panamax vessels.
The future unleashing of these huge vessels through the Panama canal which previously would have been impossible due to the canals’ limitation on vessel size has forced major ports around the globe to take up major expansion works while others are considering renovations such as dredging to enable them accommodate post panamax vessels that are expected to call at such ports.
In West Africa, most ports are faced with draft limitation challenges with the Tema port for instance limited to just 11.5 meters as its deepest berth although the country has announced the expansion and the creation of new berths to about 16 meters deep soon.
One may therefore ask;
How would the expansion of the panama canal to a depth over 18 meters affect west African ports, some of which are yet to be developed to 16 meters deep berths? Secondly, Would these post Panamax mega vessels ever call at West African ports?
Even though these Post Panamax vessels may not call at West African ports any time in the immediate future due to draft limitation, Industry experts believe the expansion of the canal would lead to deployments of bigger vessels and enable a true round the world service since the canal can now take bigger vessels and carriers on their part would want to enjoy the economies of scale that an expanded canal would enable. These scenarios would lead to these post panamax vessels making fewer port calls.
The expectation therefore is that, carriers would re-deploy current panama canal dependent vessels (12.5m draft vessels) onto different trade routes, and with projections indicating a surge in trade to emerging economies and developing countries, typical vessels calling at ports such as Tema, Abidjan, Lome and Lagos would shift to larger capacity vessels.
Moreover, reducing the number of port calls would also mean that larger vessels on west African trade routes would rely on gateway ports that could also serve as pure transshipment ports (PTPs) for feeder services necessitating the need for a gateway port in the sub region.
Also Read; The Master Plan For The Tema Port Expansion
Judging from the above arguments, It is a possibility that the expansion and subsequent operation of the Panama Canal could influence the size of vessels that would call at West African ports hence its no surprise that West African ports and for that matter Tema port has joined other global ports to embark on major expansion and renovation works as evidenced from the various port developments projects across the sub region. This ports developments is in line to enable ports accommodate certain high capacity vessels that is expected to call at the ports due to the canals expansion.
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