Maritime transport: Saturation of ports, a bottleneck for the Tunisian economy

Tunisian ports are increasingly saturated and suffer from a lack of appropriate equipment and infrastructure, as well as a deterioration of related services.

The World Bank returned in its latest study on “Blue Economy in Tunisia” to the need for the development and sustainability of maritime transport in our country across the entire value chain. Despite its importance, the institution considers that this issue remains complex and far from being resolved in our country.

A rather heavy management

The study indicates that the management of the maritime transport sector is quite cumbersome in terms of efficiency and flexibility, management and responsiveness. Indeed, port and maritime services are still largely dominated by the public sector. Three public companies are involved, namely the Tunisian Navigation Company (CTN) in maritime transport, the Merchant Navy and Ports Office (OMMP) for the management and regulation of ports and the Tunisian Lighterage and handling (Stam) for port handling and landscaping. They are all under the supervision of the Directorate General of Maritime Transport and Ports (Dgtmp) of the Ministry of Transport.

For passenger transport, there is a focus only on local demand and not taking into account the potential for innovation towards other emerging “niches” (link with tourism). This mode of transport is highly dependent on fossil resources, but presents impacts and risks (noise and polluting emissions).

Port infrastructure: from 38e at the 100e position

The sector also encounters enormous difficulties in being able to adapt to the rapid changes in standards and quality and cost requirements. Confronted, during the last two decades, with a significant increase in the traffic of goods and with new tendencies in the maritime transport, the Tunisian port infrastructure did not know how to modernize.

Indeed, Tunisian ports are increasingly saturated and suffer from a lack of appropriate equipment and infrastructure, as well as a deterioration of related services. Tunisia’s collapse in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) port infrastructure quality ranking illustrates this poor performance: Tunisia fell from 38e position (out of 134 countries assessed) in 2008-2009 at the 100e position (out of 137 countries assessed) in 2016-2017. Today, port infrastructure and services increasingly represent a bottleneck for the Tunisian economy and can hinder the participation of local companies in global value chains (GVCs).

Heavy traffic…

Tunisia, a country at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, sees nearly a hundred ships transiting its waters daily and more particularly at the level, on the one hand, of the Siculo-Tunisian strait, between Sicily and Cap Bon and, on the other hand, to the north a few dozen kilometers from its northern fringe. This intense traffic constitutes a permanent threat for the Tunisian coasts and the activities which occur there because of the risks of pollution which would generate accidents of ships transporting hydrocarbons or dangerous products. This risk is all the more important in view of the constantly growing increase in maritime activity off the coast of Tunisia and the obvious ecological sensitivity of the Tunisian coast.

Despite their importance, the ports experience “a bottleneck” due to the extension of urban areas and poor management of the city-port interface. In addition, port infrastructures face increasingly significant dangers due to the impacts of climate change (rise in sea level, impact of fluctuations in sea currents, risks of natural disasters, etc.).

In addition, the Enfidha deep-water port project has not been able to see the light of day despite its necessity, the preparation of related studies and the reservation of its land holding for more than 15 years.

Moreover, according to the latest report of the “blue plan”, maritime transport represents a major challenge, given the virtual absence of low-carbon transport alternatives for a Mediterranean criss-crossed daily by thousands of ships, facing a constant increase in maritime traffic for the transport of people and goods. There are, however, still according to environmental professionals, significant margins to be exploited to reduce the harmful effects of this activity on the ecological balance. They relate in particular to increasing the efficiency of engines, to the recycling of waste water and waste in the ships themselves, and to the setting of strict standards, in particular for oil tankers, for the age of ships and for ballast. Maritime cabotage is almost non-existent in Tunisia. Apart from boats between Sfax and Kerkennah or between Medenine and Djerba, almost all goods and passenger transport is provided by road, most of which passes through the coastal towns from north to south of the country. This sector could constitute a niche to be developed in the medium and long term. Its impacts in terms of cost and carbon footprint and pollution would be lower compared to road transport. However, this type of activity, in order to develop, will need modern and efficient port and logistics infrastructures.

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In terms of transport policies, the White Paper on the transport and logistics sector (2016) identified six major themes affecting the transport and logistics sector, including: an inadequate port system, in terms of capacity and efficiency, and insufficient capacity in maritime transport and the need for a proactive policy to reduce the carbon footprint in the sector. The White Paper proposed an action plan for 2030, which was largely integrated into the 2016-2020 development plan.

What recommendations?

Following the diagnosis of the maritime transport sector, the study recommends the development of the sustainability of maritime transport throughout the entire value chain. To achieve this objective, priority actions must be carried out, including taking all the measures required to minimize the environmental impacts in accordance with the EIA (environmental impact study) in the construction of the deep-water port and/or new port infrastructure. It is also necessary to evaluate the potential of domestic maritime transport (cabotage) at short distance, by developing short lines (including intercity maritime transport). Furthermore, the study proposes to improve coordination and synergy with other related sectors (tourism, other modes of transport, fishing and export industries), to improve the integration of the value chain, for example by the development of the shipbuilding industry (construction and repair), to promote the decarbonization and desulphurization of maritime transport by exploring alternative energies and fuels of better environmental quality, in particular two alternative fuels — ammonia and hydrogen — such as the most promising “zero carbon” fuels for shipping today, more scalable and more competitive than other biofuels or synthetic carbon fuels.

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