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Major South African container port partly reopens after flood

Major flooding this week has kept truckers and dockworkers from reaching the Port of Durban in South Africa. Increasing cargo backlogs are likely until roads leading to the port are repaired.

Heavy rain threatens cargo shipments

Since Sunday, torrential rains and heavy flooding have swept across the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, damaging infrastructure and disrupting port operations. Several areas recorded as much as 13 inches of rain in less than 24 hours, amounts typically associated with tropical cyclones.

Widespread landslides and flooding have disrupted road and rail transportation. The situation has been aggravated by massive damage to infrastructures of power suppliers, telecommunication providers and water treatment plants. Local authorities have alerted the military to assist the disaster management teams.

Cargo backlog likely to increase

Transnet SOC Ltd. suspended all ocean operations at the Port of Durban on Monday evening due to road closures and severe flooding in the area. The port gradually resumed operations Wednesday. However, the 36-hour closure has led to backlogs in cargo processing, with more than 23 cargo and container vessels currently waiting at anchorage outside the port as of Wednesday night. No major damage was recorded at the port, but road damage has prevented truckers and port workers from reaching the terminals.

Depots and container warehouses in the surrounding area reported damage to containers as floodwater washed empty containers away or caused container stacks to collapse. Some operations at these facilities remain suspended.

The Port of Durban is a significant port for container, metal and agricultural shipments. According to Everstream Analytics, the terminal has a capacity of 3.6 million twenty-foot equivalent units per year, with a further 1.4 million tons of breakbulk capacity and 1.4 million tons of agricultural bulk capacity per year.

Among the port’s largest exports in 2020 were automotive components, ferroalloys, raw nickel, chemical wood pulp and chromium ore. Agricultural exports including fruit, wheat maize and soy meal are also likely to be affected by the flooding.

The Port of Richards Bay, about 100 miles north of the Bay of Durban, has also been reporting some operational disruptions. Transnet reported that terminals were operating at limited capacity, with major challenges reported in handling wet cargo types. Dry cargo, including coal, had been less affected, with major coal exporter Thungela Resources Ltd. reporting limited impact on operations and Exxaro Resources Ltd. reporting none.

Diverting cargo to other ports in South Africa could prove challenging. The best alternative ports of call include the Port of Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and the Port of Ngqura. However, each of these ports offers substantially less container capacity than the Port of Durban, indicating that facilities could quickly fill up and be overwhelmed if many vessels make diversions.

Port access limited

The heavy rain has led to severe flooding, damaging key roads and bridges leading to the Port of Durban. The South African National Roads Agency SOC Limited (Sanral) announced the closure of Bayhead Road, which links highways to the port’s terminals. Sections of the N2 and N3 highways were also closed and officials have warned that there was currently no access to the port by road. All truck appointments at the port were canceled the first three days of this week. The road closures pose significant barriers to cargo trucks. Carriers, shippers and customers should expect delays until the roads have been repaired.

Transnet’s freight rail engineering teams said rail lines across the province are operating at limited capacity. They’re assessing the level of damage. The announcement means that ground transport in the province will effectively be grounded from the Port of Durban, creating significant delays for any cargo movement to and from the ports, potentially for several weeks.

More rain coming

More rain is in the forecast for the KwaZulu-Natal province this weekend. The South African Weather Service said further flooding, along with hail and strong winds, are possible across southeastern areas of the province. This may further delay recovery efforts and road repairs, as well as the loading and unloading that has resumed at the Port of Durban.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Nick Austin.

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