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The Suez Canal is being widened.  Will that be enough to prevent another ship from getting stuck?


In order to avoid a repeat of the event, in mid-May, the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) announced that it had started dredging work to widen and deepen the southern part of the canal where the Ever Given was stuck.

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?”

Boat size

Over the past 50 years, the container carrying capacity of the largest ships has increased by 1,500% and doubled in the last decade alone, according to shipping insurer Allianz Global Corporate and Specialty.

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 case of Ever Given illustrated the potential repercussions of a blockage. At the time, the Lloyd’s List maritime news newspaper estimated the ship was carrying around $ 9.6 billion worth of cargo every day. The Suez Canal handles around 12% of world trade, with around 19,000 ships passing through it each year.

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.

Future routes

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.

Without the Suez, expeditions between the two continents would have to travel around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa. Some shipping companies have opted for this route when the Suez was blocked, although it takes more than double the time.
The Suez Canal is being widened.  Will that be enough to prevent another ship from getting stuck?

“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.

An official at the nuclear company Rosatom, which is in charge of developing the road, told a Russian news agency that “the Suez precedent has shown how fragile any road between Europe and Asia is.” , and called for the development of alternative routes such as the Northern Sea Route.
Shortly after the comments, shipping company MSC, the world’s second-largest container line, doubled down on its pledge to avoid the Northern Sea Route for environmental reasons. Shipping in the Arctic could increase pollution and contribute to the melting of sea ice.

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.

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