The Changing Coastline and Port Environment

It is rather a hackneyed thing to say, but the world is changing, and that means the world’s shorelines are changing likewise.


The MoD’s Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC) regularly publish a document called Global Strategic Trends which describes the context for defence and security out to 2045.

It is available from this link

Global Strategic Trends is an excellent document that should be used to inform capability generation.

One of its themes is that of urbanisation.

With 70% of the global population likely to live in cities by 2045, urbanisation will be a particularly important theme in developing countries. Urbanisation is likely to enhance economic and social development, but – without mitigation measures – may also lead to pressure on infrastructure (and the environment) which could contribute to social tensions within the urban population. Urbanisation and the effects of climate change are likely to result in an increase in the magnitude of humanitarian crises, particularly since the majority of urban areas will almost certainly be either on, or near the coast, making these cities vulnerable.

The United Nations also publish information on urbanisation.

Migration to coastal regions is common in both developed and developing nations and population density is observed being higher in coastal cities than in other areas.

If the current trends in population growth, urbanisation and migration continue over three quarters of the world’s population will be living within 150km of the coast.

Night Sky 2009 and 2030

By 2030 it is predicted that the coastline between Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro will be a single urban sprawl housing 40 million people. In South East Asia 75% of all cities with a population in excess of 2.5million are on the coast. Closer to home, the Mediterranean basin has one of the highest population densities anywhere. The Sustainability Observatory reports that a quarter of Spain’s seafront has been extensively urbanised.

Population growth results in an increased level of coastal land development; dredging, land reclamation, pipelines, housing, hotels, port development, marinas, storage facilities, fisheries and mines (mineral, not explosive).

Coastal land development increases the economic value of that land and in turn, increases the demand for tide and storm protection, erosion control, and as a result, the coastline become increasingly concreted.

For amphibious operations, the problem becomes less one of getting onto the beach and more of one of getting off it.

In the developing world, the lack of effective governance and land management means land development generally wins over beach preservation. Where beaches, coral reefs and mangrove swamps are retained it is because they are valuable to local economies, but they will be under constant pressure.

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If the developing world follows the same trajectory as the developed world, shorelines will change dramatically over the next several decades, perhaps even more so as megacities in Africa, South America, Asia and the Middle East grow at faster rates than those in the West.

The images below show a selection of coastal terrain from various parts of the developed and developing world that shows its increasing diversity and development;

Shore Environment 05

Shore Environment 04

Shore Environment 01

Shore Environment 14

Shore Environment 03

Shore Environment 20 (Tendring)

Shore Environment 10

Shore Environment 25 (Tunisia)

The world’s population is increasingly moving to cities and those cities are increasingly situated on coastlines.

None of this necessarily means that ALL shorelines are changing, or that ALL shorelines of interest are changing.

But it does mean that it is an issue we should be making plans for.


If the coastal landscape is changing because of economic activity and increasing urban populations, so are ports.

Increasing population and globalisation means increasing trade, increasing trade means increasing shipping activity, but how does affect ports?

The short answer is, in very specific ways.

For container shipping, larger ships seem to the trend; New Post Panamax and Malacca Max for example. The demand for efficiency has resulted in greater automation and fewer, but much larger ships.

If we believe that future operations in Africa may be more likely than less, port trends in Africa are important to consider. Here we find that port density compared to coastline is low and large areas do remain undeveloped. There are many small and medium sized ports approaching capacity, quality of aids to navigation, machinery availability and dredging consistency also plague many African ports.

Most African nations with a coastline have one or two large container terminals that handle gateway volume and act as transhipment routes for neighbouring landlocked countries.

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Pure Transhipment Ports together with regional and sub regional feeder ports are emerging as the standard model. West African terminal growth is ensuring that these large ports can handle the very large 14-18 thousand TEU ships.

The increase in size of vessels has resulted in ‘cascading’, a process where the largest ships relegate smaller ships (even they are actually very large) to smaller terminals.

The infrastructure needed for different types of cargo (bulk, liquids, RORO and containers) has also resulted in port specialisation. Felixstowe for example has no RORO, bulk or liquid cargo facilities whatsoever. Increasingly large and specialist ports act as hubs and more numerous feeder ports collect and distribute on short sea routes.

There are about 500 container ports worldwide able to handle more than a thousand TEU’s per year with the largest able to handle container capacity in the millions per year but it is noteworthy that less than 20% of worldwide ports handle containers in any meaningful manner despite the high penetration of containerised traffic.

Ship draught and port dredged depth differences have significant impact on logistics operations. One survey found that in order to access ports in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield, the average utilisation of US sealift ships was a mere 23% of their maximum capacity, the implications of which should be obvious to all. During Operation Restore Hope in Somalia the first three US prepositioning ships to arrive at Mogadishu had to turn around and go elsewhere or back to Diego Garcia because the port environment was simply too shallow.

What all this means is that smaller ports are increasingly being developed alongside their mega port contemporaries. The smaller coastal ports (and inland ports) tend to be multi-purpose and in order to meet the demands that result from consolidation in mega ports they are both being developed and becoming increasingly numerous.

Below is another collection of images but this time, showing the range of diversity of small to medium size port infrastructure that are inaccessible to our traditional large cargo vessels but easily accessible by increasingly larger feeder vessels.

Small Port 03


Small Port 02

Small Port 13

Small Port 05

Small Port 09

Small Port 11

Small Port 14

Small Port 12

The trend therefore, seems to be fewer larger ports for mega container ships which drives the cascade effect, the emergence of sub-regional feeder ports, port specialisation and a general improvement of ports across the full spectrum of sizes.


If there are conclusions, they are fairly simple.

  • Coastlines are being increasingly developed, changing their nature
  • Main ports are increasingly large and specialised but smaller ports are increasingly numerous, and general purpose

In planning for future expeditionary operations, neither of these can be ignored.



The Changing Coastline and Port Environment

The Defence and Overseas Development Context

Defining the Requirement

Requirement 1 – Design, Contract Management and Rapid Response Survey

Meeting Requirement 1 – Port Survey and Design

Requirement 2 – Port Opening

Meeting Requirement 2 – Port Opening

Requirement 3 – Enhanced Coastline Access

Meeting Requirement 3 – Part A

Meeting Requirement 3 – Part B

Meeting Requirement 3 – Part C

Final Thoughts

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