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Trouble in Suez: Giant ship stuck in canal is costing the world billions8 min read

March 28, 2021 6 min read


Trouble in Suez: Giant ship stuck in canal is costing the world billions8 min read

Reading Time: 6 minutes

What’s all the fuss over the Suez Canal about? News articles, memes, hashtags and buzz are doing the rounds for a few days now concerning this water body. Pictures of a massive, we mean mammoth, container ship called the Ever Given lodged across this narrow watery passageway are all over the internet, and this is a huge issue. Owliver explains why…

An aerial view of the Ever Green blocking the Suez Canal. Credit: Maxar Technologies

A massive problem

This map illustrates the longer route around Africa vessels will be forced to take if the Suez is not opened up

Since it was officially completed in 1869, the Suez Canal, in the Egyptian city of Suez, has been one of the world’s most important bodies of water because of what it impacts – the global economy. This is because of its route and location, which is basically a portal between East and West. It is the only means of contact between the waters of Europe with the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean and the countries of the Asia-Pacific, such as Japan, China and India!

Without this important canal, ships carrying various kinds of goods to different parts of the world would have to take a much longer route – around the continent of Africa – which would increase costs and the overall length of the journey.

Indians on board

The entire crew of the giant cargo ship are all Indians. Shoei Kisen Kaisha, the ship’s Japanese owner, confirmed to the Associated Press that all the crew aboard Ever Given came from India, and are safe and accounted for.

Owliver’s Obscure Facts

For ships carrying goods, the time saved by using the Suez Canal is invaluable. A ship traveling from a port in Italy to India, for example, would cover around 4,400 nautical miles if it passed through the Suez Canal, at a speed of 20 knots (37.04 km/hour). This journey takes about nine days. The alternate route, and the second-fastest, is via the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa and around Africa. At the same speed, it would take three weeks to complete the route, which is 10,500 nautical miles long. With this passage blocked by the 222,000-ton container ship, about a tenth of global trade passes is at a standstill. And, it could take weeks before the situation is resolved.

Memes around the stuck vessel have gone viral of social media in the last few days

How did the Ever Given get stuck?

The vessel is stuck in a narrow section of the canal, about 985 feet wide. Its owners say high wind during a sandstorm pushed the ship sideways, wedging it into both banks of the waterway. Visibility was low during the sandstorm, which made it difficult to steer the giant container.

Suez’s loonggg and exciting history

Interestingly, the canal has existed, in some form, since the time of ancient Egypt, specifically the reign of Senausret III, Pharao of Egypt (1887-1849 BC). Many kings who ruled later kept reworking this canal, expanding it over the years. Construction on the canal, however, started to pick up pace around 300 years back as sea trade between Europe and Asia gained importance.

An old picture from 1860 of the work being done to construct the Suez Canal.
Credit: Getty Images

In 1799, French military and political leader Napoleon made efforts to build a proper canal, but due to miscalculations in measurements, the mission was stopped. Then, in the mid-1800s, French diplomat and engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps convinced the Egyptian viceroy Said Pasha to support the canal’s construction. In 1858, the Universal Suez Ship Canal Company was given the task to construct and operate the canal for 99 years, after which rights would be handed to the Egyptian government. The canal was opened officially for international navigation in 1869.

The Suez Crisis

The thing about the Suez Canal was that though located in Egypt, most of the shares in the canal company were owned by the French and British, the latter was a big Colonial power back then. In 1954, due to growing pressure from the Egyptians, a seven-year treaty, or agreement, was signed between them and the British. This eventually led to the withdrawal of British troops.

(The video below gives you a glimpse at the history of the Suez Canal)

In 1956, Egyptian President Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal to pay for the construction of a dam on the Nile. This led to the ‘Suez Crisis’ with UK, France and Israel, who planned an attack on Egypt. The conflict ended in 1957 after the United Nations got involved.

Owliver’s Obscure Facts

 The United Nations getting involved in the Suez Crisis was the first instance of the UN Peacekeeping Forces being deployed anywhere in the world. It created a station at Sinai in Egypt to maintain peace with Israel. In 1967, Nasser ordered the peacekeeping forces out of Sinai, leading to a new conflict with Israel. Israelis occupied Sinai, and to counter, Egypt closed the canal to all shipping. The closure lasted until 1975 – that’s eight years – while Egypt and Israel fought. In the process, a dozen ships – known as the Yellow Fleet – remained trapped too.

What’s affected?

Shipping journal Lloyd’s List estimates that goods worth $9.6 billion pass through the canal each day! The 50 ships on average that pass through the canal carry 1.2 billion tons of cargo. Due to the lack of alternate means of transport, experts say this blockage will affect the supply of parts and raw materials, such as cotton from India, petroleum from the Middle East and auto parts from China, that are headed towards Europe. Shipping containers heading towards Asia will also be affected.

The impact on the US will be less, as it receives shipments from Asia via the West Coast.

Owliver’s Obscure Facts

According to Lloyd’s List, a shipping journal, the canal hosts nearly 19,000 vessels each year.

Efforts underway to free the Ever Given. Credit: Reuters

What happens now?

At the time we published this article, the vessel had been stuck for six days and efforts are still on to move it from its current diagonal position. Helping the Ever Given get un-stuck could take “days to weeks, depending on what you come across,” according to the CEO of Boskalis, whose sister company SMIT salvage is now working to free the ship.

“We expect that at any time the ship could slide and move from the spot it is in,” Suez Canal Authority (SCA) chairman Osama Rabie was quoted as saying by Reuters. He added that water had started running underneath the ship.

Another expert told AFP, “If they don’t manage to dislodge it during that high tide, the next high tide is not there for another couple of weeks, and that becomes problematic.” 

Owliver’s Obscure Facts

 The Statue of Liberty was originally intended for the canal!

As the Suez Canal neared completion in 1869, French sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi tried to convince Ferdinand de Lesseps and the Egyptian government to let him build a sculpture called ‘Egypt Bringing Light to Asia’ at its Mediterranean entrance. Bartholdi envisioned a 90-foot-tall statue of a woman clothed in Egyptian robes and holding a massive torch, which would also serve as a lighthouse to guide ships into the canal. The project never came through, but Bartholdi continued pitching the idea for his statue, and in 1886, he finally unveiled a completed version in New York Harbor. Officially called ‘Liberty Enlightening the World’, the monument has since become better known as the Statue of Liberty.

Sources: Indian Express, CNN, Britannica, India Today, History.com