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Antwerp’s new sea-lock: Big ships beat the traffic

Antwerp’s new sea-lock: Big ships beat the traffic

Kieldrecht unlocks the docks and boosts the Flanders economy

The massive ships ride the tide on the Scheldt for five hours, waiting their turn. Eventually they enter the Kallo lock, which takes them through to the quays of the Waasland docks to unload their cargoes. “The lock is really full,” says Freddy Aerts, head of maritime access at the Flemish Ministry of Mobility and Public Works. “So we have these traffic jams.”

The ships are costly to operate and their cargoes must be unloaded quickly. So Aerts is about to give the cargo vessels a way to beat the traffic. The port of Antwerp inaugurates the biggest lock in the world on 10 June. The Kieldrecht lock will triple the amount of shipping using the Waasland docks on the left bank of the Scheldt by providing a second way for ships to enter. “Now we can take the biggest ships that are sailing,” Aerts says. “It will be a real stimulus to the economy.”

In a momentous month for massive port locks, Kieldrecht will take over from the Berendrecht lock on Antwerp’s right bank as the world’s biggest. Later in June a third lane of new mega-locks on the Panama Canal will open. All are built with European engineering and financed by the European Investment Bank, which put up EUR 160.5 million of the new Antwerp lock’s cost.

Between low and high tide, the Scheldt rises and falls between four and six metres. That slows cargo handling and requires very deep quays. So Antwerp—like other tidal ports—built locks, which take ships into a basin where the water level can be held stable. On the right bank, Antwerp has six locks, including the big Berendrecht, which opened in 1989. That infrastructure helps make it Europe’s second-biggest port, after Rotterdam.

Underused dock capacity

Antwerp decided in the 1970s to build a port complex across the river in Waasland, an area previously devoted to farming and a declining textile business. The Waasland docks were planned with the potential to handle even today’s biggest ships, with drafts of about 16 meters. The trouble is, the 30-year-old Kallo lock—the only access to Waasland—has long been working at full capacity.

Though Waasland could cope with many more ships, Kallo’s size meant that only about 24 sea vessels and some barges could be transferred in and out of the docks each day. “The investment in Waasland couldn’t be used at full capacity,” says Aerts, who was born in Waasland.

That’s a problem for Antwerp’s growth. It’s also a strategic problem for Europe. Worldwide freight is expected to quadruple by 2050. Europe’s ports must keep up with that increase. “The Kieldrecht lock unlocks the capacity of the port,” says Inge Vermeersch, an EIB engineer who worked on the new lock project. “The lock will help Antwerp strengthen its position in Europe.”



Building Antwerp’s new sea-lock

In 2010, the Scheldt’s navigation channel was widened and deepened, to allow more and bigger ships to travel the 80 km from the North Sea up the river to Antwerp. Even though the economic crisis had struck hard at Europe’s ports, the EIB nonetheless supported the big investment in the new lock and signed its loan in September 2011.

Construction of the Kieldrecht lock took more than four years. A massive project, the builders had to excavate 5 million cubic meters of earth and dredge as much again. Building the lock used 755,000 cubic meters of reinforced concrete and three times the amount of steel in the Eiffel tower. Workers unearthed a 3.5 million-year-old whale while digging out the lock. It took seven days just to fill it with water in April. On 10 June King Philippe of Belgium will inaugurate the lock, and within three weeks it will be operating at full capacity.



Antwerp’s new sea-lock boosts employment

That will be a big boost for the Flanders economy. The EIB’s maritime economist Tom Scheltjens, who lived for years in Antwerp, remembers that he and his friends used to take their motorbikes to the Waasland docks to speed along roads that were largely empty because of the underuse of the quays. Motor racing in Waasland is a thing of the past now. Scheltjens foresees an expanded port boosting the number of businesses operating nearby, because of the ease with which goods can be moved in and out.

“This contributes to regional industrial development in a major way,” he says. “It helps Flanders stay on the map as a region for investment because of the added-value in logistics, and that creates employment.”

Already 62,500 people work directly on the Antwerp docks, with another 88,000 employed in connected businesses. The port is worth EUR 19 billion a year to the Belgian economy, according to the country’s national bank. That’s 4% of gross domestic product.

Even businesses elsewhere in Flanders will benefit. With big ships set to travel through the new lock, the smaller Kallo lock will be freed for the barges used on inland waterways. That means goods which might have been transferred to trucks will instead be moved inland on rivers and canals, limiting greenhouse-gas emissions.

“These are real long-term benefits,” says Aerts, the Flanders ministry’s maritime access head. He acknowledges, however, that the Kieldrecht won’t be the world’s biggest lock for the long-term. Last year the EIB approved a EUR 300 million loan to finance a new sea-lock for Amsterdam which will be two meters wider than Kieldrecht and 20 cm deeper. “We have two of the biggest locks in the world here,” he laughs. “We’re going to enjoy that for now.”



Antwerp’s new sea-lock latest of many EIB projects

The EIB finances major maritime projects all over the Trans-European Transport Networks (TEN-T). Some of the most recent big projects in northwestern Europe include:

  • Belgium: two locks and dredging of the river Meuse
  • France: extension of the ports of Calais, Cherbourg and Caen
  • Ireland: infrastructure work in Dublin and the relocation of Cork’s container terminal
  • Netherlands: Sealock IJmuiden, set to become the largest lock in the world, to replace the current lock built in 1929
  • UK: a deepwater container port on the Thames for London, a deep-sea container terminal for Liverpool, and upgrades for the ports of Hull, Southampton and Dover



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