Siltation threatens Payra port

Iftekhar Mahmud . Dhaka | Update:

Pay Port entrance. Prothom Alo File PhotoThe first terminal of Payra sea port at Kuakata in Patuakhali is now visible and a 24 kilometre channel is being dug for ships to enter. The project will cost 80 billion taka. An international study, however, suggested that it would be very difficult to keep these waterways free if siltation.

Five researchers from Germany, Belgium and Bangladesh conducted a survey that says that the channel can be silted up and blocked any time during a medium-scale storm. The channel is regularly filled every year due to high and low tides. It will cost nearly Tk 80 to 100 billion each time to dredge.

The research team also fears it is not possible even for a developed country to manage such expensive dredging regularly. Moreover, once it is silted up, all operations in the port will come to a standstill until the dredging is done. Notably, Payra port will be the third sea port of the country.

Surveys and other related works for dredging started since January.
The five researchers, however, say that 1.1 billion cubic meters of silt coming down from the Himalayas flow into the Bay of Bengal via various rivers in Bangladesh. As many as 400 million cubic meters of silt is deposited in Payra port as well. The channel will be, therefore, filled in a year with such huge amount of silt.

Rejecting such claims, state minister for shipping Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury said, “Experts demoralise by negative comments and surveys every time Awami League takes up any mega project, be it Jamuna bridge or Padma bridge.”

“We will be successful with the Payra port project the same way as the Padma bridge as we never finalise any project without proper verification.”
He also mentioned that Chittagong and Mongla port also silt up and have to be dredged regularly to keep them operational.

“We have no control over natural calamities. Yet, if anyone has any different opinion on the matter, we will definitely take that into consideration,” he added.

The research team is headed by the former head of the German government’s Geological Survey Directorate, and current professor of the University of Bremen of Germany Hermann R Kudrass. Other members on the team are, Syed Humayun Akhter, a professor of the Department of Geology of Dhaka University, Professor I Meyer of Ghent University of Belgium, Professor El Palamenachi of Breman University and Professor B Machalet of Humboldt University.

The findings of this study were presented in the conference titled ‘Delta Plan-2100’ organised jointly by Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA) and Bangladesh Environment Network (BEN) in the capital on 11 and 12 January. The government was also provided with recommendations and other details of the conference that mention the risk of silt deposition along the Payra port channel.

Chairman of Payra port authority Commodore M Jahangir Alam said, port authorities were aware of what the researchers said.
“We are gathering more detailed information and data beside that. We are also going to find ways to keep the port free of the silt. We hope that by 2022 we can activate Payra port,” he added.

Professor Kudrass has been researching on the water flow and silt deposits in the Bay of Bengal for 20 years. He has been one of the two advisers for Bangladesh in legal fights on maritime boundary with India and Myanmar that Bangladesh won in 2012 and 2014. Bangladesh received 19,467 square kilometres of maritime area from the disputed 25,602 square kilometre area in the Bay of Bengal.

Payra port gathers the largest amount of silt among any other coastal areas not only Bangladesh but in the world, according to Kudrass.
At the same time, many industries and other infrastructure will be established in the area after the port operations begin. A number of coal-fired power plants and industrial establishments have been built already. Bangladesh will be in a dilemma when the movement of cargo starts through the port and it suddenly closes due to silt deposit.

The government has undertaken plans of two power plants with China linked with Payra port. Already the construction of a power station is underway. In Kalapara upazila, work on the construction of six power plants, a seaport, special industrial zone and four-lane highways is in progress under government initiatives. Several companies of the country have purchased land for industrial purposes in Kalapara and Kuakata areas.

Member of the planning commission and senior secretary Shamsul Alam had been the chief guest at the Delta Conference.
“Any expert can have an opinion about anything. That does not mean it is the final decision. We will decide everything by verifying the matters,” Shamsul Alam told Prothom Alo.

Payra port will be used as the marine corridor of Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and China, as per the official website of the port authorities. Apart from this, the area will be a prominent place to set up all kinds of heavy industries including LNG terminals, fertilizer factories, readymade garments and pharmaceuticals. Port authorities are hoping that shipyard may be built in the area.

The government signed a deal with Belgium’s company for the excavation of the Payra port. According to the agreement, the survey will take 14 months and excavation 14 months. Then another six months will be taken for primary maintenance dredging and 9 years 2 months for the remaining maintenance dredging.

Payra Dredging Company Ltd will receive the funds to implement the project from HSBC and its consortium banks with the help of Belgium Export Credit Agency. Payra port authorities will start repayment of the money after 6 months at the end of the primary maintenance dredging with interest in 20 equal half-yearly instalments. Both parties will seek funding for maintenance and dredging in the remaining years of the contract, subject to payment.

The government started construction of the first terminal of Payra port at a cost of Tk 11.28 billion in November 2013. It was about to end in June 2016. But in March last year, the cost of construction of the terminal was increased by nearly three times to Tk 33.50 billion and the time was extended for another two years. And the deal for digging the channel was signed in January last year. The shipping ministry has said it will be complete in the next 34 months.

According to Professor Kudrass, a vessel has to cover 60 kilometres to reach Payra port from the Bay of Bengal. Of that distance, 24 km has a 5 metre depth, 22 km 10 metre depth and 14 km has 15 metre depth. But for vessels to use the channel unhindered, it has to be on average 15 metres deep and 300 metres wide. This will require 100 million cubic metres of silt to be cleared.

Humayun Akhter of Dhaka University’s Geology Department said, Bangladesh needs a deep seaport for economic development.
But for such a port, the depth has to be up to 15 meters. At the same time there should be less silt flow, so that the cost of maintenance is low. But Payra port has none of these,” he said.

Alo, the geological composition of the site selected for Payra port is still quite unsettled. Changes constantly take place in the formation and so constructing a port there is risky, he said. He added that the original decision for a deep sea port at Sonadia, Cox’s Bazar, had been the correct decision.

*This report appeared in Prothom Alo print edition has been rewritten in English by Farjana Liakat

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