On August 6th, 2009 the bulk freighter M/V Yuehai, with 42,855 Metric Tons (MT) of wheat onboard, left the Port of Dunkerque bound for Karachi, Pakistan. For years various bulk shipments have made their way from this port bound for WFP programs around the world, but this time what would happen to this shipment at the other end was anything but routine.
Halfway around the world in the Port of Karachi it was business as usual. Ships moved in an orderly fashion out of one of the busiest ports in South Asia and trucks carrying goods from this city on the Arabian Sea lumbered inland toward various destinations. Some would stop in major cities while others would pass through the hub cities of Quetta and Peshawar on their way to northern and southern Afghanistan. Amidst this hustle and bustle a small armada of trucks made its way towards a lonely port nearly 500kms to the west.
Gwadar Port sits on the inland side of a hammerhead shaped isthmus which juts out from the barren region of southern Balochistan. For years it has served as a base for the region's fishing fleet but recently was developed into one of the few deep water ports along the Pakistani coastline. The massive concrete dock has all that is needed to handle the freight shipments that have begun to trickle in from around the world.
On a good day, the interior of Karachi Port has a maximum depth of 10.67m. The draft of the fully loaded M/V Yuehai was 11.5m. Typically such a deep draft vessel would head to an outer berth but at the time there was no space for the inbound freighter. The WFP shipping team had anticipated the congestion at the port and as the ship drew near the coastline it adjusted its course slightly and headed towards the distant Gwadar Port. Rather than make a direct run into the Port of Karachi it would first lighten its load further down the coastline. It was the first time a WFP vessel was to call at Gwadar Port in the restive Balochistan region.
While the offloading of grain was one of the main reasons for the stop, the Pakistan country office also wanted to run a test to determine if moving future shipments through Gwadar Port was a viable option. With its close proximity to the Iranian border, Gwadar Port offers access to an alternate route into Afghanistan as well as a backup port in case of an interruption of services at the Port of Karachi. Lastly, the WFP country office wanted to see if such an operation was feasible in a region known for its instability. Such an operation could positively impact the situation and help open the doors for future activities.
The unloading process was straightforward and uncomplicated. Although there were no vacuators to siphon the grain, the shipboard grabs made relatively quick work of the 4,000MT that needed to be unloaded. Brilliantly colored trucks waited in long lines for the grain to be dropped into the hopper, bagged and then loaded onto their rear decks. The operation ground on, night and day, until the ship was sufficiently lightened and the long convoy of vehicles was ready to depart. 48hrs after the vessel's arrival in Gwadar Port the mooring lines were released and the ship swung a wide arc back into the Arabian Gulf and on to its final unloading point in the Port of Karachi.
The newly loaded convoy of trucks began their long journey deep into Balochistan en route to their final destination of Peshawar. Once in Peshawar the grain would be reloaded and moved deep into northern Afghanistan. The balance of the grain, which continued on its way to the Port of Karachi, is now awaiting unloading and will also eventually find its way to Kabul.
The successful completion of both WFP Shipping's split load test of Gwadar Port, and the Pakistan country office's test to determine accessibility to the port, will provide WFP with the critical feedback it needs to determine if future use of Gwadar Port is an option. If it is shown that usage of the port provides WFP with significant advantage we could soon see it accessing new routes into Afghanistan and the region.
Special thanks to: Angjelin Mingu, Belkacem Benzaza, Stephen Cahill, Pedro Vila Acosta and both the WFP Shipping and WFP Pakistan teams!