Since the 23rd of March, 2021 the Suez Canal has been completely blocked by the Ever-Given container ship, which is owned by a Japanese trade company and operated by a Taiwanese one. It has a length of 400 meters and a carrying capacity of 20 000 containers, which accounts for 224 000 tonnes. The cargo ship was traveling north through the Canal, heading from China to Rotterdam, when, around 7:40 AM, it remained blocked. The blockage happened due to a sandstorm and to the wind blowing hard (40-knot), which resulted in low visibility and poor navigation conditions. The Ever-Given ship remained blocked between the two shores of the canal. Since then, no other ship has been able to pass through the Suez Canal, which led to a jam of marine traffic, great losses for multiple companies, as well as problems that seem to arise for the global supply chains.
The Suez Canal is one of the most important sea routes used for navigation and, especially for trade, connecting the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Approximately 12% of the worldwide trade takes place through this waterway, with 19 000 ships passing through it only in 2020. The Canal makes trade between Asia and Europe much more efficient in terms of money and time, as the route that encircles Africa to the Cape of Good Hope would take one week to 10 days longer. This means that the time for a ship to reach its destination is increased, which results in more money being spent on transportation, increasing the prices on the market due to higher sums allocated to trade, and even more environmental damage.
The Suez Canal, which has a length of 193 kilometers, has been in use since 1869, but, in the meantime, there were more events that closed or made the trade here impossible to proceed. This happened in 1956-1957 during the Suez Crisis, and then it was closed again between 1967 and 1975, when it did not function in the context of the Israeli occupation of the Sinai Peninsula.
More than 160 ships are waiting for the canal to be unblocked, among which there are other large container ships and tankers carrying oil and gas. The Suez Canal Authority (SCA), together with two maritime rescue teams from Japan and the Netherlands have been trying to unblock the route for days now, but it is predicted that it could take up to some weeks for the container to be removed and the trade to function again, as the situation is very complicated. The methods to be used include dredging the sand (between 15 000 to 20 000 cubic meters) and reducing the weight from the ship, by removing the containers:
“If the method is not correct it might take a week, and if it’s done well it might take two days. But if it had been correct [in the first place], then the crisis could have ended yesterday,” told a senior pilot of the Suez Canal Authority to CNN. Also, he declared that after the process, the Ever Given might not be able to sail anymore and it would be needed to direct to the Great Bitter Lake, a parking site, which is located 30 kilometers north from the place where the accident took place. Still, there are some experts that do not agree and say that the blockage would certainly last more than one week, with the possibility of being extended to at least two weeks.
In order to avoid the jam, the SCA announced on the 25th of March that traffic through the canal would be temporarily halted and it has also let some ships coming from the Mediterranean Sea wait in the Great Bitter Lake. But the lake has since then reached its capacity of 43 ships and the jam seems impossible to be avoided:
“Navigation through the Suez Canal is temporarily suspended. That is only until the floatation works of the large Panamanian container vessel EVER GIVEN; which ran aground at the 151 km area (Canal Marking), are complete. […] However, an alternative scenario had to be adopted; which entailed those vessels dropping anchor in the Bitter Lakes waiting for the area, until navigation can be fully resumed after the floatation of the vessels,” stated Admiral Osama Rabie, the chairman of the Suez Canal Authority.
There are numerous consequences that are already visible and which indicate that the situation would escalate into a crisis, that could be accentuated as the days of blockage continue. Maersk, the world’s largest company of container shipping, declared that seven of its ships have been blocked or affected by the situation in the Suez Canal. It is also estimated that a total of 13 million barrels of oil are stuck on the vessels that wait for the canal circulation to be reopened. The problems with oil transportation resulted in an immediate increase in oil prices. Experts say that there will be great losses of money, the blockage costing the global economy around $400 million per hour, as well as, losses for the companies that have transportation processes planned through the Suez Canal. This would also have an impact on the prices on markets and on the global chain supplies, showing the vulnerability and de dependency of states on the system.
In regards to Egypt, it is making great efforts in order to make the traffic here possible again. It is putting a lot of money and struggles to solve the situation and it already lost money that would have been cashed from the ships that should have transited the waterway in all these days. Concerning the canal, the Egyptian authorities stated that the width of the Suez Canal has doubled in the past 50 years, but it is becoming harder and harder to keep up with the increase in trade, as it seems that the canal is still not big enough. Moreover, Turkey has shown support, offering to help Egypt with the crisis. Adil Karaismailoglu, the Transport Minister of Turkey, offered to send the Nene Hatun vessel to help in eliminating the blockage:
“We have conveyed our offer to help to our Egyptian brothers and if a positive response comes from them, our Nene Hatun ship is among the few in the world that can carry out work of this nature,” declared Minister Karaismailoglu.
Up until now, the Ever-Given ship is still blocked and more economic actors consider using the route that encircles the African continent to the south, even if it costs and lasts more.
About the author:
Delia-Maria MOTAN is Intern research at MEPEI, and her research interest lies in international relations and political science in the Middle East. Currently, she is studying at the Faculty of the Political Science / University of Bucharest.