The 30-kilometer-long area will be widened 40 meters (131 feet) to the east and deepened to 72 feet, from 66 feet, according to the SCA. Plans also include the 10 kilometer (6 mile) extension of the second lane near Great Bitter Lake, which opened in 2015, allowing two-way traffic for an 82 kilometer (51 mile) stretch.
The work aims to “maximize the efficiency of the canal and shorten the transit time of ships, as well as to increase the safety of navigation,” said a press release from the SCA. But there are still questions as to whether this will be enough to prevent future lockdowns.
“Widening the canal is a smart move,” Sal Mercogliano, maritime historian at Campbell University in North Carolina, told CNN. “My question is, if you are widening the canal, then will the ship operators expand their ships?”
Larger ships can carry up to 24,000 containers and measure over 200 feet at their widest point – wider than a standard American football field. The Ever Given – which can hold up to 20,000 containers but was carrying only 18,000 at the time of the grounding – is in the top 1% worldwide in terms of vessel size, measuring 400 meters (1,312 feet) long and 59 meters (194 feet) wide.
Shipping companies claim that the larger ships are more efficient at transporting large volumes of cargo around the world and – under normal conditions – they are able to cross the Suez.
But “it’s a very narrow margin of error,” said Mercogliano. If there are strong winds – as in the case of the Ever Given – or poor visibility, very large ships may get stuck.
The extension proposed by the SCA will help reduce the risk of ship blockages, but will not erase it, says Ioannis Theotokas, professor in the Department of Maritime Studies at the University of Piraeus, Greece.
“It will never be enough unless a second lane is opened in the southern part,” he told CNN. But he believes container ships are unlikely to grow, so further enlargements may not be needed.
“The increase in the size of ships has resulted in significant investment in ports to support them. A further increase would require additional investment,” which is not readily available, he adds.
However, the Ever Given incident sparked discussions about alternative routes. The canal’s strategic position – connecting the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and providing the shortest sea route between Europe and Asia – is key to its influence.
“It is no coincidence that soon after the Ever Given incident, Russia commented on the attractiveness of alternative routes, namely the Northern Sea Route,” said Theotokas. This route runs along the Arctic coast of Russia, from the Kara Sea to the Bering Strait.
Theotokas believes Suez’s position as a global trade route will remain strong.
“Shipping companies are always ready to manage risks like Ever Given,” he says. Extending the SCA will just make them more comfortable.
“The widening of the canal will facilitate rescue operations … although it does not eliminate the risk of repeating the incident,” he said.