Suez Canal must upgrade to avoid future disruption, say industry experts

The Suez Canal needs to be upgraded as quickly as possible if a worse potential disaster than March’s six-day closure is to be avoided.

The crash of the Ever Given on March 23rd led to a 400-plus backlog of ships as more than a dozen tugs and two dredgers were brought in to try to free it. But what concerned industry sources was the implications of a vessel capsizing, or breaking in half. The general feeling was that the Ever Given incident could have been far worse, given that it is twice as long as capsized car carrier Golden Ray, much of which remains in St Simon’s Sound, Brunswick, Georgia, USA, 18 months after it capsized. And access to the Golden Ray is far less complicated than would be access to a capsized vessel in the Suez Canal.

Suez Canal Authority (SCA) chairman Lt Gen Ossama Rabie said that Egypt would get two new tugboats, one very quickly and one in August. He said that the SCA would also take the biggest dredger in the Middle East and was arranging for the delivery of a further five new Chinese tugboats.

However, the consensus in the industry was that specialist equipment and the associated procedures had long been fighting a losing battle to keep up with the ever-increasing size of commercial vessels.

Michael Kingston, an international shipping specialist and an adviser to the United Nation’s International Maritime Organization, who has been warning of the dangers for several years, said of the Ever Given accident that “the obvious way to lighten a vessel … is to take the containers off. They had no way of doing it. No equipment was readily available”.

The SCA continues to insist that the canal can take 20,000 teu vessels of the Ever Given’s size in poor weather as well as good.

While an additional channel would be the magic solution, the immediate art of the possible, said industry experts would include bigger tugboats, dredgers and offloaders, and stricter guidelines on how ships should transit the canal. Those could include using tugs to assist large vessels, or only permitting transit during daylight hours.

The problem, as ever, is cost. The Suez Canal has to make itself cost-effective relative to the router round the Cape Of Good Hope.

Rabie said that “there are many lessons learned from the incident. Of course we have the capabilities”. It was not quite clear what this meant.

Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said when visiting the Canal after the blockage had been cleared that “we have to give a strong message to the world that the Suez Canal … can transport world trade at this rate or more”.

Pressure was certainly increasing from the industry for the Canal to extend a second channel south of the one that Egypt opened in 2015 (at a cost of $8bn) along a 70-km portion of the waterway. That would allow traffic to continue flowing even if a ship were grounded.

However, the President would say no more than “An expansion for the southern section of the canal can be under consideration. It’s up to the technical people. We don’t want to take measures just due to extraordinary situations.”