The Ever Given is still there, reminiscent of a giant beached whale, stranded between the banks of the Suez Canal. For four days now, it has been preventing navigation in both directions in the narrow but vital sea passage. And it suspended the naval trade of a part of the world. It will not be easy to free and refloat this 220,000-tonne, 400 meter long cargo ship carrying 20,000 containers, which ran aground at 7:45 a.m. on Tuesday, overwhelmed by strong winds and a sandstorm with gusts of up to 30 miles per hour.
Specialized Dutch and Japanese teams that arrived on Thursday are studying how to get it free. Egypt is also trying on its own. The Suez Canal Authority has intervened with two dredgers, four excavators and nine tugboats. It tried to get the silt around the freighter cleaned up, and the tugs pushed it hard in hopes it could find some momentum and be able to maneuver. All to no avail. The Japanese owner of the container ship reported resignedly that operations could take “days to weeks.” Egyptians have flooded social media with humorous memes mocking the authorities and intervention teams. In one, there is a photo of an excavator at work that appears tiny and helpless at the foot of the enormous Ever Given.
But there is little to joke about, because at least 150 ships that must pass through the waterway are stopped near Port Said on the Mediterranean Sea and Port Suez on the Red Sea, in addition to those already stuck on Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake. The maritime magazine Lloyd’s List estimates that each day the Suez Canal is closed represents a blockage of more than $9 billion worth of goods. A quarter of all daily Suez Canal traffic comes from giant ships like the Ever Given. A domino effect is feared with delays in delivery of goods that could build up for weeks, if not months, with disruptions in supplies of all kinds of products.
For Egypt and the regime of Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the economic and reputational consequences of the incident will prove to be substantial, while questions are being raised about the ability of the regime to manage one of the busiest routes in the world, through which 10% of international sea trade passes (in 2020, almost 19,000 ships went through). Losses for the canal, shipping lines and Egypt are already in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
“This crisis threatens energy supplies around the world and could force companies to look for alternative routes, albeit much more expensive than the Suez Canal,” warned Rashad Abdo, director of the Egyptian Forum for Economic Studies. Indeed, Russia has promptly proposed to divert maritime traffic from the East to the Mediterranean and Europe to the Northern Sea Route, the route between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean along the Russian coast of Siberia. Passing through Suez lowers the costs and dramatically shortens travel between Asia and Europe, but on Thursday, global shipping giants Maersk and Hapag-Lloyd were already examining options for avoiding the Egyptian Canal. One option is sailing around the Cape of Good Hope, at the southern tip of Africa.
El-Sisi has staked a great deal on the doubling of the size of the Suez Canal, completed a few years ago, and the heavy fees paid by oil tankers, merchant ships and container ships to cross it. Without a doubt, it was and remains a significant item for the state’s revenues, estimated at between $5 and $6 billion per year. But many, in Egypt and in the rest of the world, have never believed in the usefulness of this pharaonic project implemented by the Egyptian president. Ship traffic intensifies only when the cost of oil rises, otherwise many companies choose longer routes to avoid Suez and the toll. Others are still warning about the risks to the environment arising from the enlargement of the canal—starting with the increased pollution resulting from the increase in the number and frequency of ship passages, and, finally, possible infestation by animal species dangerous to the Mediterranean ecosystem.
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