A port of call for climate change

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The subject of the usefulness of harbors is one which I must not omit, but must explain by what means ships are sheltered in them from storms.…But if by reason of currents or the assaults of the open sea the props cannot hold the cofferdam together, then, let a platform of the greatest possible strength be constructed...” (Vitruvius. 1st century B.C.E. De architectura)

“(Ports’) main purpose is to provide a secure location where ships can berth.” (Stopford, M. 2009. Maritime Economics. Routledge. UK)

More than two millennia passed between the two writings. Yet, some of the basic requirements for ports haven’t changed much. The assessment of their adequacy in the light of current and future climate change impacts requires new approaches. Rising sea levels, shortening return periods of storm surges and floods, increased intensity in storms – to name a few –  can have detrimental impacts on port facilities and equipment. Using only historic climatic records to plan for the future is likely to be inadequate, especially for assets that have long lifetimes.

However, port facilities are only a part of a bigger picture. Even if a port is planned and operated with considerations of climate change impacts, the inland infrastructure and supply chain that serves a port –roads, rail or inland water transport - that is not designed to withstand projected climate impacts may pose the weak link and interrupt a port’s operations. Finally, the supply cargo transported through a port can be affected by extreme events (as in recent interruption of mining operations in Australia due to heavy floods, or the ongoing impacts of heavy rains and flood on the roads of Colombia) or the gradual change in climatic conditions (for example, agricultural products).

More than 80% of globally traded goods are transported by the sea and through the ports, and climate risks analyses and subsequent climate proofing need to be incorporated to key elements. However, a recent survey of several hundred ports found that although almost all respondents forecasted expanding new infrastructure in the next few years, most were not planning for climate change. A possible reason identified in the study is lack of information that is specific to climate risks to the ports: although the vast majority of respondents felt that ports should consider adaptation, only one third felt sufficiently informed.

Recognizing the needs for approaches to climate risk assessment and adaptation specific to ports, IFC elaborated and recently published a new study, Climate Risk and Business: Ports. This is the fifth study in IFC’s Climate Risk Program, a series of pilot studies that analyze climate risks and adaptation options for projects taken from different sectors and regions. The ports study, done in collaboration with IFC’s client port Muelles el Bosque (Cartagena, Colombia), starts from a premise that climate proofing firstly involves a detailed understanding of key components of port operations – not only immediate physical facilities but also the supply chain, as well as trade patterns - may be affected by climate change.

This understanding can unlock the door to a series of initiatives needed to adapt: specific adaptation actions that can be done in the short term, prioritization of investments, strategic infrastructure planning, change of operational practices, etc. Importantly, it also identifies gaps and needs that may be critical for a ports operations but where it doesn’t have control or capacity to undertake necessary initiatives, and provides the much needed specificity of requirements for adaptation initiatives and adaptation from other stakeholder groups –public sector, research institutions and others- that is required for adaptation at a wider scale.

In this context, as Muelles el Bosque President wrote in the foreword to the report, "a study like this is just the beginning".




Vladimir Stenek

Climate Change Specialist, IFC

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