Suez Canal: The sea route to prosperity

By Amruta Talawadekar, Research Associate, Maritime History Society

Roadways are often blocked because of broken cars or irresponsible drivers who travel recklessly on the streets. While you are mentally prepared for such circumstances on the roadway, have you ever considered what would happen if such an incident happened on an ocean route? Before you think about it, it’s already in the papers. The Suez Canal has been blocked by the huge container ship ‘Evergiver’ according to recent news headlines. This brings us to ponder upon the Suez Canal’s significance, and the global ramifications of this incident. 

Opened in 1869, the Suez Canal is an artificial sea-level waterway that runs north to south through Egypt’s Isthmus of Suez to connect the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. Due to its strategic geographical location, the canal connects Africa to Asia and is the fastest maritime passage between Europe and the lands surrounding the Indian and western Pacific oceans thereby eliminating the need to circumnavigate Africa and cutting voyage times by days or weeks.  

The canal is extensively used by modern ships. It is one of the world’s busiest sea routes and plays a vital role in global maritime trade. The grounding of the ‘Evergiver’ has resulted in the partial closing of the canal, which handles about 10% of global maritime commercial traffic. It contributes to almost 12% of global trade and transits between 5% and 10% of the world’s seaborne oil. Almost one-third of the world’s seaborne freight travels through the Suez Canal, from food to agricultural machinery, car parts to carpets. Currently, more than 100 ships are awaiting passage across the channel. The backlog could take more than a week to clear. A lengthy closure could be very costly for the owners of ships waiting to transit the canal. While the owner of the ‘Evergiver’ is in debt, with millions to pay on insurance claims and getting the ship going, the Egyptian government as well as the owners of ships on hold, too face harsh consequences. The burden of delays will ultimately be passed on to the customers. 

Nonetheless, it is not the first time the canal has been obstructed. In the modern era, the canal has been closed to traffic twice. The first closing came in 1956, after the trilateral British-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt, which was largely inspired by the nationalisation of the waterway. In 1957, the canal was reopened. The second closure happened after Israel’s June 1967 war and lasted until 1975, when Egypt and Israel signed the second disengagement deal. There have been several cases of grounding of vessels prior to the expansion of the canal.  

Thus, the Suez Canal is the sea path to global development, and any impediment to it can be devastating.  


References

1. Authority, Suez Canal. n.d. Suez Canal Authority. Accessed Mar 26, 2021. https://www.suezcanal.gov.eg/English/About/SuezCanal/Pages/Canal History.aspx. 

2. Gladstone, Rick. n.d. NY Times. Accessed Mar 26, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/25/world/middleeast/suez-canalcontainership.html#:~:text=The%20canal%20is%20in%20Egypt,times%20by%20da ys%20or%20weeks. 

3. Hincks, Joseph. n.d. Time. Accessed Mar 26, 2021. https://time.com/5950030/suez-canal-boat-stuck-costbillions/#:~:text=The%20120%2Dmile%2Dlong%20artificial,of%20the%2 0world’s%20seaborne%20oil

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