What to Know About the Suez Canal — and How a Ship Got Stuck There

The 120 mile long man-made waterway known as the Suez Canal has been a potential focal point for geopolitical conflict since it opened in 1869. Now the canal, an important international shipping passage, is in the news for another reason: a quarter of the mile-long Japanese-owned container ship en route from China to Europe has landed in the canal for days. It blocks more than 100 ships and makes the world of maritime trade tremble.

Here are some basics about the history of the canal, how it works, how the ship got stuck, and what it means.

The canal is located in Egypt and connects Port Said on the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean via the southern Egyptian city of Suez on the Red Sea. The passage enables more direct shipping between Europe and Asia, so that Africa no longer has to be circumnavigated and travel times have to be shortened by days or weeks.

The canal is the longest in the world without locks that connect bodies of water at different heights. According to a description of the channel by GlobalSecurity.org, end-to-end transit time averages 13-15 hours as there are no locks to disrupt traffic.

Originally owned by French investors, the canal was conceived when Egypt was under the control of the Ottoman Empire in the mid-19th century. Construction on the end of Port Said began in early 1859, the excavation lasted 10 years, and the project required an estimated 1.5 million workers.

According to the Suez Canal Authority, the Egyptian government agency that operates the waterway, 20,000 farmers have been drafted every 10 months to support the construction of the project with “excruciating and poorly compensated workers”. Many workers died of cholera and other diseases.

The political turmoil in Egypt against the colonial powers of Great Britain and France slowed progress on the canal, and the final cost was roughly double the originally projected $ 50 million.

The British powers, which controlled the canal during the first two world wars, withdrew their forces there in 1956 after years of negotiations with Egypt, effectively handing over authority to the Egyptian government, led by President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The crisis started in 1956 when the Egyptian President nationalized the canal after the British left. He took further steps which Israel and its Western allies identified as a security threat and which resulted in military intervention by the Israeli, British and French forces.

The crisis briefly closed the canal, increasing the risk of embroiling the Soviet Union and the United States. It ended in early 1957 under a United Nations-monitored agreement that sent its first peacekeeping force to the region. The result was viewed as a triumph for Egyptian nationalism, but its legacy was an undercurrent in the Cold War.

The Suez Crisis was also an issue in Season 2, Episode 1 of The Crown, the acclaimed Netflix series about the kings of Britain, when then British Prime Minister Anthony Eden pondered how to react.

Egypt closed the Canal for nearly a decade after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, when the waterway was basically a front line between Israeli and Egyptian forces. Fifteen cargo ships, known as the “Yellow Fleet”, were locked in the canal until it was reopened in 1975 by Nasser’s successor, Anwar el-Sadat.

Some accidental groundings by ships have since closed the canal. Most notable up to this week was a three-day shutdown in 2004 when a Russian oil tanker ran aground.

The stranded ship Ever Given, operated by the Evergreen Shipping Line, is one of the largest container ships in the world, about as long as the Empire State Building.

Although the canal was originally designed for much smaller ships, its canals have been widened and deepened several times, most recently six years ago at a cost of more than $ 8 billion.

It is believed that poor visibility and high winds, which made the Ever Given’s stacked containers look like sails, have drifted off course and led to its grounding.

The salvage forces tried a number of remedial measures: pulling it with tugs, dredging it under the hull and using a front loader to dig the eastern dam where the bow is attached. But the size and weight of the ship, 200,000 tons, had frustrated the rescue workers from Thursday evening.

Some marine rescue experts have said that nature could succeed where tugs and dredges have failed. A seasonal high tide on Sunday or Monday could give the canal about 18 inches deep and potentially float the ship.

This depends on how long the canal is closed, which is believed to handle about 10 percent of the world’s maritime traffic. TradeWinds, a maritime industry news publication, said that with more than 100 ships waiting to cross the canal, that backlog could take more than a week to clear.

A prolonged closure could be very expensive for owners of ships waiting to cross the canal. Some might decide to reduce their losses and reroute their ships in Africa.

The owner of Ever Given is already facing millions of dollars in insurance claims and the cost of emergency services. The Egyptian government, which generated $ 5.61 billion in revenue from canal fees in 2020, also has a vital interest in getting the Ever Given going again and reopening the waterway.

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