A Q&A with Steven Weerts
90% of global trade is carried across our seas and a great number of goods we use in our everyday lives arrive via ports. Nevertheless, despite the essential role they play in the global economy, un sustainable ports can have dramatic impacts on coastal ecosystems and goods and services we derive from them. Ports can be significant sources of pollution. Dredging to create water depths required by modern shipping fleets and disposal of dredged spoil destroys habitats and can impact fisheries. Port machinery and ships themselves are heavy emitters of carbon dioxide, contributing to climate change.
Such environmental impacts – of which these are just a few – have led to efforts worldwide to create ‘greener’ or more ‘sustainable’ ports. Nowhere are such efforts more critical than in the Western Indian Ocean region, where significant expansions of port capacity are underway. One man deeply involved in such initiatives is Steven Weerts, who has been studying and communicating environmental impacts of major coastal infrastructure projects, including ports, for years.
The Nairobi Convention Secretariat sat with Steven Weerts, Research Group Leader and Senior Scientist at South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, to talk about his insights into the challenges and opportunities to achieving sustainable ports across the region. Below, find some excerpts from the conversation (slightly modified for clarity).
Nairobi Convention: How did you become interested in the environmental impacts of ports?
Weerts: Throughout my career as a marine and estuarine ecologist I’ve worked in ‘highly transformed’ environments, of which ports are a prime example. Perhaps less glamorous than pristine protected areas, but certainly not less interesting. I’m always amazed at how ports can sustain biodiversity and ecological functions. They might be highly modified from their natural states, but they can be ecologically viable and valuable if we manage them correctly.
Nairobi Convention: What are the major issues facing sustainable ports development?
Weerts: From an environmental perspective, port development has traditionally followed a pretty flawed process, starting with the design phase. Ecosystem features which potentially benefit port development (such as deep river mouths) have been exploited while those that constrain port development (such as waves) have been “engineered away” (using breakwaters, for example). Engineering design principles prioritize creating a system that meets specifications (size and number of ships, volumes and types of cargoes) at reasonable cost. Engineering considerations are always placed before environmental considerations and often the need for environmental approval is seen as a “green handbrake”.
Even when Environmental Impact Assessments are conducted, the development options presented are often slight iterations of a pre-selected engineering design – none of which are desirable for the environment. In the best case scenario, the ‘least worst’ environmental option is chosen.
We can solve that by engaging with environmental specialists much earlier – at the start of the design process rather than at the end. Incorporating ecological principles at the design stage is the best way to avoid undue impact on marine and estuarine systems. I believe that logistical and environmental objectives can both be accounted for in ports if they are designed this way. We just need to work at optimizing the relationship between the two. ‘Engineering with nature’ approaches are being implemented in many places around the world, and my stance is that we can and should use this approach in Africa.
Nairobi Convention: Why is designing sustainable ports important in Africa, and the Western Indian Ocean region in particular?
Weerts: There is no place else on earth where there is more of a need for ports to coexist in the environment. Coastal communities across Africa, and certainly in the Western Indian Ocean, are deeply dependent on marine and coastal resources for their basic living needs. Yes, we have to develop our infrastructure systems, but this must be done in a manner that is coherent with our natural and social systems and does not result in foreclosure of other uses. Service lives of port structures can exceed 100 years. If we do not get this right in the design phase, we could very well sit with undesirable consequences for hundreds of years to come.
There’s a lot of talk about ‘green’ ports or ‘sustainable’ ports, but for me the conversation should be about creating ‘people’s ports.’ We need to design multifunctional, multi-use ports – uses that not only focus on moving cargos and ships, but also service the needs of the wider coastal community, for fisheries, for recreation, for people to safely work in and live around.
Nairobi Convention: What about ports that are already in existence? How can they become more sustainable?
Weerts: Changes in regional and global trade as well as the world’s shipping fleets are necessitating upgrades in ports – channel deepening, berth development, quay construction projects – across the Western Indian Ocean. These provide a real opportunity for us to start incorporating ecological design principles for wider use and benefit.
We can take existing infrastructure, like quay walls and retrofit them to be more biologically productive and ecologically meaningful. For example, one way to “bioenhance” an old concrete quay wall would be to fit structures that initiate recruitment and growth of algae or bivalves. Eventually, these walls can transform from being biologically sterile to ecosystem components that improve biodiversity in ports, provide habitat for juvenile fishes and even support beds of filter feeders that improve water quality. This approach is being implemented elsewhere in the world with success. Some may regard it as window dressing, but if done at scales large enough – which ports typically provide – you can truly regenerate biodiversity and biological productivity.
There are also ways to adapt port processes to make them more sustainable and ecologically viable. For example, improvements can be made to processes like dredging (removing sediment from ports to allow for the passage of deeper vessels). Typically, dredge material is treated as waste and dumped, which can contaminate water and smother organisms and their habitats. But there are potentially beneficial uses of dredged material (to combat coastal erosion, or for habitat restoration, for example).
And of course, there are ways to reduce the carbon footprints of ports by improving energy efficiencies. Provision of shore power to docked ships is an example, allowing cleaner forms of energy to be used for electrical power while the ship loads or unloads its cargo. This has the additional benefit of reducing shipping operators’ fuel costs and increasing the competitiveness of local ports.
Nairobi Convention: What’s next for South Africa in terms of green port development? Is there anything on the horizon – i.e., crucial studies or policy decisions, perhaps – that should be on our radar?
Weerts: There’s a lot on the table right now when it comes to upgrading ports. In Durban, for instance, significant investment and upgrades are planned in the port over the next ten years. This is an excellent example of a case where – unless port development makes provision for multiple uses and takes environmental issues into consideration – there will be serious constraints to achieving the growth desired. Already there have been several instances where environmental authorizations have been denied or delayed on ecological grounds. To a large extent, the port is losing its societal license to operate. It’s now well accepted that ports are not separate from the coasts and cities where they are located, and they need to be designed and operated in an integrated manner to avoid conflict. Durban again provides a good example. Port related truck traffic is causing serious congestion on surrounding roads, impacting the city’s transport network. On the other hand, failures in solid waste and sewage management in the city impact port water quality and affect the port’s ability to operate.
Nairobi Convention: What advice would you give to advocates or policymakers, either in South Africa or the wider Western Indian Ocean region, pushing for sustainable coastal infrastructure?
Weerts: There’s a fair amount of knowledge out there already; it needs to be embedded locally. I think some case studies or demonstration projects on sustainable port development would be really useful. These could include focus on retrofitting bio-enhancement technologies, for example, but it’s really important to consider sustainability and include ecological design principles in every new development going forward. Guidelines for green port development in the Western Indian Ocean region are currently under development. These will be important, but port authorities and developers must be receptive to using them, just as environmental lobbies must be receptive to the need for ports. It’s important to sensitize decision-makers and stakeholders to the idea that building with nature is possible and that it’s not necessarily a choice between development or the environment.
For more on sustainable ports and Steven Weerts’ work, visit the CSIR website.