Anthropogenic disruptions are related to human activities, particularly managerial and operational errors and labour-related disruptions. Accidents at terminal facilities can be disruptive, but the large majority have a limited impact on total capacity. For instance, a container could be mishandled in a yard, and its contents could be damaged, as can the equipment handling it, such as a reach stacker. Ship maneuvering errors have damaged piers and even toppled cranes, resulting in the loss of terminal capacity and costly repairs. Infrastructure and equipment failures can create sporadic disruptions but can be mitigated with predictive maintenance and operational safety.
Another risk concerns accidents in the access channel that could result in a partial or complete blockage of the port terminal facilities or transoceanic passages. The blockage of transoceanic passages is rare but can have important ramifications due to the cascading effects it creates along supply chains. For instance, the closure of the Suez Canal between 1967 and 1975 because of the conflicts between Israel and Egypt led to substantial disruptions in the shipping industry due to deviations via the Cape Route. In 2021, the Suez Canal was blocked for one week when the ultra-large containership Ever Given ran aground, causing disruptions on Europe-Asia trade routes and associated supply chains. Unintentional vessel groundings can have a wide range of causes, but navigation errors remain the most important.
Ports with a long and relatively narrow access channel are particularly at risk of blockage. In the worst-case scenario, an accident or incident on the access route can result in a full or partial port blockage. The potential impact of a port blockage varies from port to port as options may be available. The direct effect of a blocked entrance is that maritime traffic cannot enter the port for the duration of the blockage is removed or the lock repaired. This would mean that normal maritime-related activities would halt for at least a couple of days, and perhaps months. A significant share of all directly employed personnel involved in dock labour would become technically unemployed. Logistics companies located in the port would suffer as their main modal transfer point would no longer be available, forcing them to secure more costly transportation options. Relocation could become an option in such cases.
As the size of ships continues to increase, pilots have less margin for errors. Nautical authorities have worked out stringent conditions for large ships entering a port or navigation channels to avoid any accident risk as much as possible. Ship simulators can evaluate the risks associated with accommodating specific ship sizes in navigation channels and ports. A trial call of a ship provides empirical verification of the simulation results, and a basis for clearance of the respective ship size and class. The occurrence of a risk is substantially reduced through the observance of traffic rules and separation schemes, port traffic control, and the use of experienced pilots. However, a catastrophic failure always remains a possibility, even if the chance of it occurring is slim. The risk of accidents and port blockage can further be reduced by providing multiple access ways, such as more locks.
The most disruptive events are linked with the use of the port as a storage facility for hazardous goods, such as chemicals and explosives. The Tianjin and Beirut port explosions of 2015 and 2020, respectively, illustrate the massive damage, loss of life and disruptions a port industrial accident can generate. Both events resulted from a fire that set off an explosion in stockpiled explosives and chemicals. While Tianjin was able to quickly resume operations because the explosion took place in the backport area, the Beirut explosion destroyed and severely damaged multiple piers and storage facilities.
Many ports across the world are home to a range of industrial activities, such as chemical and petrochemical clusters, steel plants and automotive assembly plants. These industrial clusters can be the source of major industrial disasters ranging from a local fire, accident or explosion to a large chemical spill affecting the entire port. A remote possibility exists for nuclear contamination as many nuclear plants are located in or near port areas. The impact of an industrial disaster depends on its nature. For example, an isolated fire could lay waste to a chemical plant and cause temporary problems for surrounding companies but would have no major effect on port operations (See case studies on Suez Canal Blockage and Tianjin Explosion in PART III).
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