End to 47-year monopoly on dredging river Scheldt

Summary

Merger with other dredging contracts avoids compensation payments and opens work up to international competition

Muddy business

A monopoly on dredging the left bank of the river Scheldt in Antwerp, which has lasted for nearly 50 years, is to end in 2022. The Flemish government has found a way to break the contract without making large compensation payments, and will in future open the work to international competition.

“We are dealing here with the legacy of old political culture,” said Ben Weyts, transport minister in the Flemish government. “We will replace it with an open and modern way of working, which will be better value for the Flemish taxpayer.”

The Scheldt must be dredged constantly to prevent mud from blocking access to Antwerp’s docks (pictured) and to allow the free movement of river traffic. But the dredging contract issued by the Belgian government in 1972 had neither an end date nor targets for how much mud was to be removed from the river. Effectively unbreakable, it has operated continuously for the past 47 years.

Two of the three companies that won the original contract – the Algemene Baggermaatschappij, and Ackermans and van Haaren – subsequently merged to form DEME, and together with the Jan De Nul company they have had a monopoly on the lucrative work. According to De Tijd, the Belgian Court of Auditors estimated that the contract had earned the companies €600 million up to 2016.

Unbreakable contract

Even though the contract was severely criticised by the Court for failing to meet modern procurement standards, it proved difficult to break without paying the companies involved substantial compensation.

The government has now found a way around that, by merging the contract for dredging the left bank of the Scheldt with two other contracts for dredging Flemish docks and waterways, currently held by the same companies. These run until the beginning of 2022, when they will be opened up to new bids.

We will replace it with an open and modern way of working, which will be better value for the Flemish taxpayer

- Ben Weyts

Merging the dredging contracts will also make them more attractive to outside bidders, and stimulate savings. For example, if dredging equipment cannot be used on the Scheldt because of bad weather, it will not stand idle but can be deployed at one of the other locations.

“We have been negotiating this for years, with the problematic contract and the threat of substantial compensation hanging over our heads,” Weyts said. “Now we have removed that Sword of Damocles, without it costing us a thing. On the contrary, opening up the dredging contracts will save Flanders money.”

Photo: Belga/Yorick Jansens