Interview: Tiedo Vellinga, professor emeritus at Delft University

Tiedo Vellinga. Credit: Port of Rotterdam

Tiedo Vellinga, professor emeritus Ports and Waterways at Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands, has championed a blueprint for an ecosystem-based approach to port development

As a native Dutch man who grew up on a farm, and who worked for many years at the Port of Rotterdam Authority, I have seen firsthand the obstacles and challenges of keeping nature in check when developing infrastructure.

The Netherlands is well known for its rivers and extensive coastline, as well as its advanced work in dyke development – getting higher all the time as water levels rise. The country has spent a lot of money fighting the water, but over the years it has changed its way of thinking, giving rivers more room to follow their natural course. This has resulted in far more biodiversity and development of recreation areas.

Farming practice in the Netherlands has come full circle too. When I was young, the use of fertilisers and pesticides was standard practice, which eventually drained the land of nutrients. Now, farmers are working with nature, not against it, trying to reconstruct and change their practices.

My continuing research and work has led me to understand that we need to reconsider the relationship between a development project and the natural environment in which it is to reside. Instead of creating a design and assessing it’s affects, you start your thinking with the natural processes at play.

Known as the ecosystem-based approach, working with nature, and co-creation with nature, the philosophy goes by many names but the principles are the same. And if adopted, in the years to come you won’t have to fight as hard to keep nature at bay. Instead you will see financial, operational, eco, and social dividends in the long term.

A new start

The dredging industry has been an early adopter of ecosystem-based approaches, but when looking at the overall scope of a port development project, such ways of working are rare. In most projects, attention is only given to ecosystems – only if required by an environmental impact assessment – after the planning and design processes. At this stage of the project, most of the design requirements are agreed on, leaving little opportunity to develop a port that works in co-ordination with its natural surroundings.

When presented with the chance to work on the Sustainable Ports in Africa initiative, I saw an opportunity to develop a tangible framework through which stakeholders could actively engage in an ecosystem-based process. We were asked by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research to develop a concept to make Dutch investment in Africa more appealing. At the same time, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) had shown interest in earlier involvement in the design of ports.

The result is a project, now in its fourth and final year, which demonstrates what can be achieved if a stakeholder-inclusive strategy is developed. The multidisciplinary effort included research and expertise from Delft University of Technology, the Port of Rotterdam Authority, University of Ghana, and the WWF, along with dredging companies and other universities.

Tema case study

Taking the port of Tema expansion project in Ghana as a case study, we created a framework called the ecosystem-based port design hierarchy (EPDH). It offers a road map that places the ecosystem at the centre of the project from concept to completion, including higher, larger scale levels, such as those in senior government decision-making roles. It also calls for and depends upon the early involvement of all stakeholders and contracted parties, all of whom must buy in to the ecosystem-centred approach.

It is based on four levels of port planning: 1) alternatives to a port development, 2) port site selection, 3) port layout design, and 4) structures and materials. The current status quo makes such an approach challenging, as shown in the Tema case study, which found that in all four levels, opportunities were missed to adopt ecosystem-friendlier alternatives.
Such scenarios are by no means unique to African projects and the EPDH can be incorporated into any port development project anywhere in the world.

To truly realise the rewards of EPDH, stakeholder inclusiveness is essential. Investors on most projects are usually too far removed from the tangible outcomes, and in EPDH we have tried to provide the tools to close this gap. Investors and decision-makers need to embrace the principles and framework and look one step further before they fund a project.
While a few companies have become wise to eco-centric approaches, most still see the immediate bottom line. However, I am convinced that in the end ecosystem-centred projects will work out much cheaper.

The benefits of EPDH could include less erosion, less saltwater intrusion, fewer repair works, and easier navigation. The investors and site operators do not lose out, biodiversity is created, and social value is increased.

More options

One factor that is often overlooked is the opportunity to better maximise on existing infrastructure. There is a current tendency to build new deepwater ports, but this is not always necessary, as we learnt from the Tema expansion study, which demonstrated little exploration of alternative initiatives to improve its existing site.

Politics and competition often play a part in site location, but it is hoped that the EPDH, if endorsed high enough up the decision-making ladder, will encourage more exploration of alternative strategies.

It is also worth examining, for certain locations, the possible use of offshore ports and long jetties as a cost-effective and environmentally friendly alternative. The natural depth at such locations is likely to be greater, reducing the need for dredging, and the ecological diversity away from the shoreline will probably be less affected.

Although very site- and cargo-specific, recent developments in dynamic positioning and the increasing size of ships continue to make offshore installations a more plausible option.

There are numerous ways eco-based alternatives can be incorporated into a port development site that enhance biodiversity. However, for me it is only part of the story. The next step for the project is to create value not only for nature, but also society. Jobs, liveability, and clean air; all these things can be created from an eco-led port design.