Why ports are at the heart of sustainable development

Why ports are at the heart of sustainable development

Port management has implications for economic growth, crisis response efforts, environmental protection and gender equality.

© Andrei Sharpilo/Shutterstock | A container ship arrives in the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

If you’ve never lived near a port or worked in a port, you may be unaware of the vital role they play in our lives.

Most of the products we consume every day pass through ports, making them an essential link in the global production and supply chains we rely on.

“Our livelihoods – food, jobs, energy – depend on functioning and resilient supply chains,” said UNCTAD Secretary-General Rebeca Grynspan.

The way ports are managed has implications for economic growth, crisis response efforts, environmental protection and gender equality, placing them at the heart of sustainable development.

Boosting trade and economic growth

The efficiency of a port directly affects the economies of the countries it serves, since more than 80% of world trade is carried out by sea. The percentage is even higher for many developing countries.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a stark reminder that when ports slow down, everyone suffers.

Lockdown measures have caused disruption and delays in many ports around the world. The median time spent by container ships in ports around the world, for example, increased by 20% between 2019 and 2021.

During the pandemic, freight rates reached record highs and soared again following the war in Ukraine due to logistical disruptions and port congestion.

UNCTAD’s analysis has shown how spikes in freight rates can increase commodity prices, especially in least developed countries and small island developing states.

Support the crisis response

In the event of a disaster, ports are the main point of entry for the food, water and medicine people need to survive and the fuel needed to run hospitals and health facilities.

For example, Yemen, which is experiencing one of the largest humanitarian crises, imports around 90% of its food through its ports.

The war in Ukraine was also a tragic reminder of the key role ports play in addressing crises such as world hunger. The country was the world’s sixth largest wheat exporter in the 2020-2021 season.

In the eight months leading up to the conflict, more than 50 million tonnes of grain were shipped through the country’s Black Sea ports, enough to feed around 400 million people.

Now, with Black Sea ports blocked, grain is stuck in silos on land or on ships, unable to move as 44 million people around the world face starvation.

Addressing environmental impact is key

While ports are vital for economic development and crisis response, maritime traffic, cargo handling and associated road and rail transport burden the environment through air pollution and the water.

This is due to fuel-powered cargo handling equipment, ships, trucks, trains, and power plants providing the energy needed to run port operations.

Emissions include greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and particulates, which cause respiratory infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia, as well as chronic lung and heart disease.

Reduce port emissions would cut air and water pollution and improve the health of more than 3.5 billion people while helping to curb climate change.

Need to empower women

Ports are an important source of local employment, but they have historically created more jobs for men than for women.

Data from over 50 ports working with UNCTAD’s TrainForTrade port management program shows that women held only 18% of formal port jobs in 2021. Ports are spread across Africa, Asia, Europe and America Latin.

The highest regional average was 22%, reported by the European ports that participated in the study.

A closer look showed a more encouraging average of 42% for management and administration roles in ports. But in cargo handling and operations, only 6% of workers were women.

The figures underscore the need to empower female port workers and continue to work towards gender equality in the sector.

How UNCTAD supports ports

To address existing challenges, UNCTAD provides research, analysis and technical assistance to help ports and the shipping sector – particularly in developing countries – improve their operations, empower women and become more sustainable and resilient to crises, including climate change.

This work includes the annual maritime transport review and a multi-year expert meeting on transport, trade logistics and facilitation.

In terms of capacity building, UNCTAD’s TrainForTrade port management program has certified over 6,700 port managers in 140 countries on various topics.

Program member ports can track their performance on a range of indicators through UNCTAD’s Port Performance Dashboard.

And TrainForTrade’s Port Management Week, held this year May 10-13 in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain, brought together more than 100 senior executives from around the world to explore how the program could help ports to contribute even more to the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Goals.

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