Models of Efficiency

Article | 29 August 2008

With help from the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the Fiji Islands' main ports in Suva and Lautoka are now models of efficiency. Not only did the project finish on time, within budget, and showcase engineering best practices, it also included a climate change-adaptation component that guards against earthquakes and tsunamis.

Suva - It is 6:30 on a Saturday morning and the Capitaine Tasman, loaded with a cargo of timber and taro, is about to leave Suva's King's Wharf, the Fiji Islands' busiest international port. As the ship glides across the glassy ocean on its voyage to New Zealand, it passes the Pacific Islander II, a car-carrying vessel arriving from Japan. The transition between one cargo ship loading and leaving, and another vessel arriving and unloading appears seamless, but the efficient turnaround is largely due to the Fiji Ports Development Project, funded by ADB and the Fiji Ports Corporation.

"The Fiji Ports Development Project has significantly impacted on Fiji's economy in a positive way," says Savenaca Narube, Governor of the Reserve Bank of Fiji. "The project finished on time, in budget, and was a good example of engineering best practices."

"The project has made Fiji's two main ports (Suva and Lautoka) the best in the region, comparable with Australia and New Zealand," says Waqa Bauleka, head of the engineering department at the Fiji Ports Corporation, the executing agency for the project.

Need for Improvement

Both King's Wharf in Suva and Queen's Wharf in Lautoka are located on Viti Levu, the largest of the Fiji islands. Both ports were built more than 40 years ago, and about 1,000 vessels berth at the ports each year. Back in the 1960s, ports were not protected from earthquakes or other natural disasters, cargo was not moved in containers, and heavy loads were unheard of. Before the project, Suva port's deck was extremely corroded, riddled with concrete cancer; lighting was poor; and the deck's ability to withstand heavy cargo loads was also in doubt.

The Queen's Wharf is the country's biggest export wharf. Walking along the wharf's rehabilitated and extended deck, the sharp smell of pine fills the air as wood chips are loaded onto a ship bound for Japan. Once they reach their destination, they will be pulped and transformed into paper. Just meters from where the wood chips are being loaded, the Cape Scott is standing by to have its hull filled with sugar that will soon be bound for Europe. As both ships prepare for departure, a forklift truck purposefully shifts shipping containers from one end of the extended deck to the other. A cruise ship, the Clipper Odyssey from the Philippines, arrives to refuel and restock for an upcoming South Pacific tour.

Lautoka's port may seem a model of efficiency now, but it was not always like this. The port was originally built with only one berth, which meant that if a cruise ship came in while a cargo vessel was unloading, the cargo ship had to abandon its task and go out to sea to make way for the cruise ship, which had priority of berth.

Suva's port is the largest general cargo port in the Fiji Islands. Groceries, hardware, cars, beer, wheat, and coconut oil are loaded on or off vessels here. Lautoka Port mainly deals with sugar, molasses, wood chips, and bottled water.

The Regional Director of ADB's South Pacific Subregional Office in the Fiji Islands, Sirpa Jarvenpaa, was the project officer and mission leader on the ports project when it was approved back in 2002. She says ADB and the Government of the Fiji Islands decided that extending the life of the Suva and Lautoka ports was a good interim solution to the problems they faced. Jarvenpaa explains. "The project gave the Government an opportunity to review the demand factors, the growth profile of the country, and decide whether or not to build another port at Rokobili, south of the current port, but still within Suva city limits."

Efficiency Improved

The Fiji Ports Development Project aimed to extend the life of Suva's port by 15 years, protect the port from earthquakes, improve the wharf deck and container yards to efficiently handle the increasing cargo loads, and extend Lautoka Port to allow three vessels to berth at any given time.

The project has significantly enhanced the Suva and Lautoka ports' productivity and capacity. Ships can enter and leave the ports faster, both ports are much more organized and streamlined than before, and Suva Port can now withstand earthquakes due to the seismic protection processes that were built into the project.

"We want to mainstream climate-proofing or climate change-adaptation features in infrastructure across the Pacific, and we are hoping to have some additional resources to finance the incremental cost," says Jarvenpaa.

Once both wharves were upgraded, the conditions were right for the Government to invest in mobile cranes that facilitated mechanized stevedoring (the loading and unloading of shipping containers) and raised productivity. The commissioning of the cranes has made Suva and Lautoka ports four times more efficient. On average, 20 containers per vessel are lifted per hour. Ten years ago, the average lift rate was only about five containers per vessel per hour. Security at both ports has also increased due to the Government's purchase of surveillance cameras that watch the wharves 24 hours a day.

Now that the harbor cranes are in operation, heavy loads are no problem, thanks to the newly strengthened deck. "The heaviest thing we ever loaded off a ship in Suva was a 180-ton electricity generator," says Bauleka. "We loaded it onto the newly rehabilitated deck, and brought in a specialized trailer from Australia with 40 or 50 axels. It took 3 days for us to deliver it to the Kinoya Power station, 15 kilometers away, traveling mostly at night." The generator now supports Suva's power supplies.

"The Fiji Government wanted to work with ADB on this project first and foremost because of our good relationship with them." says Governor Narube. ADB's technical expertise in rehabilitating roads, bridges, and ports in the region also helped the Government decide to partner with ADB on the project.

The Challenges

Civil unrest in the form of a coup in 2000 presented some major challenges for project partners.

Joe Singh, former Chairman of the Maritime and Ports Authority (now Fiji Ports Corporation Limited) says it was challenging to manage a large-scale ports project in a sometimes volatile environment. "We sometimes had to think laterally and creatively and exercise our leadership role," he says. Civil unrest at times imposed delays on the project, as did bouts of unfavorable weather.

"Going about business as usual, getting ships in and out, and clearing cargo while doing the rehabilitation work at the same time was definitely a challenge," adds Jokini Taoi, Port Manager of Lautoka Wharf.

Success Story

Vishnu Prasad is Branch Manager of the Fiji Islands' largest shipping company, Carpenters Shipping. He says the rehabilitation of Lautoka Wharf has definitely made his job easier, and now that the port has multiple berths, port operations have become much more efficient.

Natwarlal Vagh, President of Lautoka's Chamber of Commerce, says the renovation of both wharves under the ADB project has been very good for business in the Fiji Islands.

Parmesh Chand, now Permanent Secretary of the interim Prime Minister's Office, was the chief executive officer of the Public Enterprises Ministry during the project. He says ADB has a long history of working on port infrastructure in the Fiji Islands, and in the future he would like to see more private sector engagement in port operations, particularly in the area of loading and unloading cargo.

The Fiji Ports Development Project was completed in late 2006. Suva and Lautoka ports are now well positioned to accommodate future growth in trade and guard against natural disasters.