More than a thousand people from some 50 nations are in Houston, this week, for the 25th World Ports Conference, sponsored by the International Association of Ports and Harbors. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, conference participants are discussing ways of meeting the challenge of an unprecedented increase in world trade that puts a strain on ports.
The expansion of commerce, worldwide, relies on a shipping industry to move commodities and products from port to port. But keeping up with demand for ships and harbor facilities can be a daunting task. Just consider this fact presented in one of the World Ports Conference panels: The World Bank predicted that, between 2000 and 2010, the world economy would grow 33 percent - from $30 trillion-a -year to $40 trillion. But the world economy surged past $41 trillion-a-year in 2004.
Such explosive growth places a large burden on those who are responsible for maintaining, operating and expanding ports, worldwide. One of them is Thomas Kornegay, executive director of the Port of Houston and president of the IAPH. He says this conference has allowed him to compare notes on the world trade outlook with his counterparts from around the globe.
"We do talk about the increase in trade and how it is happening and what their estimates are and what our estimates are, so that we can all try to get a handle on what is really going to happen," he said. "Because we are all guessing, right? Nobody knows the future, we just try to predict what it might be."
Kornegay says protecting ports and shipments from terrorists and criminals has been costly, but that ports have managed to improve security without impeding the flow of commerce. He says a bigger challenge is expanding facilities to meet demand -- especially here in the United States, where regulations and government approval processes slow down development.
"I was talking with the port director from Shanghai last night and, in four years, he built seven docks," said Kornegay. "In seven years, I built two docks. That kind of explains it all, doesn't it?"
But increasing port capacity is not just a concern here in the United States. Many nations are struggling to keep up with the ever-growing need for more port facilities.
"We are all facing a shortage of capacity," said Nosipho Damasane, an official with South Africa's port operations. "In fact, when we look at the statistics, in terms of by 2011, the capacity that we need in the ports, as well as the demand, is the same, which is a problem because, if there is any delay in developing port capacity worldwide, there will be a problem in terms of moving cargo across the countries."
In addition to the formal speeches and panels at the World Ports Conference, there is an exhibit hall where various companies promote their services and many countries promote their ports. One of the largest exhibits is that of South Korea, which has more than 20 representatives of its various ports here.
"We came here to promote the port of Pusan, as well as other ports of Korea, to participants," said Jin-Sun Shin, who represents the port of Pusan. "Yesterday, the final approval of the 2011 IAPH conference hosting city was decided as Pusan, in 2011, so it was really a great celebration for us."
The World Ports Conference is held every two years and is sponsored by the IAPH, which was founded in 1955 as a forum for discussion and cooperation for the international maritime industry. Houston, which now boasts the world's 10th largest port, last hosted the conference 30 years ago. This conference, which includes representatives from 400 ports, as well as some top executives from companies related to port operations and maritime trade, continues until Friday.