The Suez Canal is expanding: will it be enough?

(CNN) — In March, world trade was thrown into chaos by a ship. The Ever Given, a container ship almost as long as the Empire State Building, ran aground in Egypt’s Suez Canal. She was stuck for six days, disrupting global supply chains.

To prevent this from happening again, in mid-May the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) ad that it had begun dredging works to widen and deepen the southern part of the channel where the Ever Given got stuck.

The 30-kilometre-long sector will be extended 40 meters to the east and deepened to 72 feet – almost 22 meters – (currently 66 feet, 20 meters), according to the SCA. The project also includes the expansion of the second lane near the Great Bitter Lake, which opened in 2015, by 10 kilometers, which will allow two-way traffic along a stretch of 82 kilometers.

The works aim to “maximize the efficiency of the canal and shorten the transit time of ships, as well as increase the safety of navigation,” an SCA press release said. But there are still questions about whether this will be enough to prevent future crashes.

“Widening the channel is a smart move,” Sal Mercogliano, a maritime historian at Campbell University in North Carolina, tells CNN. “The question I ask myself is if the canal is widened, will ship operators make their ships bigger?”

The growing size of ships

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

The largest ships can carry up to 24,000 containers and are more than 60 meters across at their widest, wider than a football field. The Ever Given, which can carry up to 20,000 containers but was only carrying 18,000 at the time of the grounding, is in the top 1% of the world’s largest ships, at 400 meters long and 59 meters wide.

The Ever Given container ship, which ran aground in March in the Suez Canal, blocking much of global maritime trade

Shipping companies argue that larger ships are more efficient at transporting large volumes of cargo across the globe and – under normal conditions – are capable of passing through the Suez Canal.

But “the margin of error is very narrow,” says Mercogliano. If there are strong winds – as in the case of the Ever Given – or poor visibility, large ships run the risk of getting stuck.

The Ever Given case illustrated the possible repercussions of a lockout. At the time, the shipping news magazine Lloyd’s List estimated that the ship held about $9.6 billion worth of cargo each day. The Suez Canal moves about 12% of world trade, with some 19,000 ships passing through it each year.

Risk persists despite enlargement

The SCA’s proposed expansion will help reduce the risk of ship jamming, but won’t eliminate it, says Ioannis Theotokas, a professor at the Department of Maritime Studies at the University of Piraeus in Greece.

“It will never be enough if you don’t open up a second lane on the south side,” he tells CNN. But he thinks container ships are unlikely to increase in size, so further expansion may not be necessary.

“The increase in the size of the ships caused large investments in the ports to be able to support them. A new increase would require more investments”, which are not easy to achieve, he adds.

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Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping line, told CNN it welcomes plans to widen and deepen the southern part of the pass.

“Increasing the double lane section will allow more ships to transit a vital waterway that receives around 10% of global trade flows. The deepening and widening will reduce the risk of grounding,” said Aslak Ross, Head of HSE and Marine Standards. of AP Moller-Maersk.

He adds that “the current size of the ships is adjusted to the demand of our network and [la empresa] has no plans to transit larger ships than we do today through the Suez Canal.”

New routes in the future

However, the Ever Given incident sparked debate about alternative routes. The strategic position of the canal, which connects the Mediterranean with the Red Sea and offers the shortest sea route between Europe and Asia, is key to its influence.

Without the Suez Canal, shipping between the two continents would have to go around the Cape of Good Hope, at the southern tip of Africa. Some shipping companies opted for this route while Suez was blocked, even though it takes more than twice as long.

“It is no coincidence that shortly after the Ever Given incident, Russia made comments about the attractiveness of alternative routes, specifically the northern sea route,” says Theotokas. That route runs along Russia’s Arctic coast, from the Kara Sea to the Bering Strait.

This satellite image shows how the ship was stuck in the Suez Canal. (Credit: Maxar Technologies/AP)

An official from the nuclear company Rosatom, which is in charge of developing the route, told a Russian news agency that “the Suez precedent has shown how fragile any route between Europe and Asia is”, and urged the development of alternative routes such as the of the North Sea.

Shortly after these comments, the shipping company MSC, the second largest container shipping company in the world, redoubled its commitment to avoid the northern sea route for environmental reasons. Shipping in the Arctic could increase pollution and contribute to sea ice melting.

Theotokas believes that Suez’s position as a global trade route will remain strong.

“Shipping companies are always prepared to face risks like Ever Given,” he says. Expanding the ACS will only make them more comfortable doing so.

“The expansion of the canal will facilitate rescue operations […] although it does not eliminate the risk of the accident being repeated,” he says.

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