It’s Time to Get Smart with Pacific Ports

Ports play a crucial role in Pacific economies. They need to operate more efficiently to meet their changing requirements. Photo: ADB
Ports play a crucial role in Pacific economies. They need to operate more efficiently to meet their changing requirements. Photo: ADB

By Alexandra Pamela Chiang, Bas van Dijk, Cha-Sang Shim, Gabriella A. Bazzano, Josef Hargrave

Harnessing advanced smart port technologies can enhance physical and economic resilience of “lifeline” ports in the Pacific.

Pacific countries share common characteristics that affect their trade profiles, port sizes, and port operations. Due to endemic factors that limit exports such as limited natural resources, and small economies of scale that restrict export sectors like manufacturing, hopes of diversification and building out export-based economies remain slim. Imports still dominate regional trade and economic activity across the Pacific.

Trade flows in the Pacific will continue to be governed by heavily loaded import containers (which determine the required port facilities), while exports will be dominated by empty containers. Currently, the most commonly imported goods include fuel, industrial and commercial machinery and other natural resources.

Nevertheless, driven by population and economic growth, a recent ADB study indicates that imports are likely to grow by around 40%–50% over the next 20-years in most Pacific countries. This underlies the importance of continual enhancement to port functionality and efficiency.

Ports in the Pacific are often multipurpose—catering to container vessels, fishing vessels, and cruise liners simultaneously. However, many wharves, first built in the 1970s, are reaching the end of their design lives. The ageing infrastructure facilities are also vulnerable to climate and natural disasters. International ports in the Pacific often serve as critical “lifelines”, particularly to ensure continued access to essential supplies and services in post-disaster response and recovery efforts. Furthermore, ports in Pacific countries are characterized by their remoteness, low cargo volumes, and high running costs.

The combination of these factors is jeopardizing the efficiency of port operations. Some wharves can no longer accommodate containers. Substantial rehabilitation or reconstruction is needed to bring them back to operable and safe standards. In some Pacific Islands, like in Nauru and Niue, unloading currently occurs at sea.

Trade expansion, containerization, and the increased frequency and severity of natural disasters are also progressively changing requirements for port infrastructure and operations. In addition to physical infrastructure, non-physical infrastructure is increasingly critical to support efficient port operations. Non-physical infrastructure includes enhanced institutional capacity through standardized operations, more streamlined customs and quarantine procedures, and enhanced cross-stakeholder communications, which further drives home the need to modernize Pacific ports.

Therefore, it is essential to consider both physical and non-physical aspects in any port infrastructure upgrade, to address the evolving demands and to ensure long-term sustainability of these ports.

Smart ports concepts offer opportunities to leverage technology and improved business processes to maximize the use of space, time, money, and natural resources. Not all smart solutions implemented in ports around the world are applicable to Pacific countries due to differences in scale.

Smart ports are not just about new technology. They are also about people.

For example, large-scale automation in major ports might not be economically feasible in the Pacific. However, digital systems could potentially be deployed to monitor impacts, measure performance, and identify bottlenecks. This could contribute to efficient and cost-effective port operations, especially in the context of Pacific countries.

A smart ports development framework and some preliminary guidelines were recently developed to support decision makers with options in initiating smart ports initiatives. However, each port is unique and has specific characteristics posing distinctive challenges for growth and development, so the appropriate level of smart port maturity and sophistication should be designed according to the needs and scale of each port.

An incremental approach offers a practical way to enable ports to become smarter over time. These small steps should be aligned as part of a clear, long-term plan to enhance resilience and responsiveness of the Pacific’s “lifeline” ports to future challenges.

Some quick-win solutions include transitioning to renewable energy to light the port area, installing sensors to monitor extreme weather conditions as well as wear and tear on terminal equipment for better planned maintenance.  Port and customs systems could be further enhanced and connected to improve efficiency.

In doing so, embracing change management would form a core component of introducing innovative smart technologies into port operations. This involves re-evaluating institutional and management capacity structures.

Crucially, the smart ports concept is not just about new technologies. It is also about people. Advanced technical skills of its operators and end-users are needed to maintain and operate the new tools and systems to ensure sustainability. Continual capacity development and upskilling will be required to support Pacific countries in evolving technical and management roles. 

The challenges of today may be very different from the challenges of tomorrow. Nothing has driven this home like the sudden and global impact of the coronavirus pandemic. In particular, climate change and technological advances, among other factors, are likely to further impact trade patterns and accelerate the need for the transport sector to adapt and innovate. Whilst major drivers shaping transport are relatively easy to identify, their implications are not.

An ongoing Preliminary Foresight Study is looking at key trends shaping the future of transport across the Asia and Pacific. This will set out a series of visions on what the future might look like, to enhance policy dialogues with ADB’s Pacific developing member countries to explore the strategic development pathways that need to be designed to achieve their desired future. 

Planning for the future has to focus not just on end-states, but more holistically on ways of doing things to ensure sustainability. Adaptive, incremental and innovative approaches driven by shared visions should guide us in moving towards a more inclusive a sustainable future.