Consider for a moment what that meant for citizens of Planet Earth:
—Billions of dollars of trade around the world were suspended or cancelled irretrievably.
— The possibility that vital food and medical supplies were unable to reach needy people in South Asia, North Africa and much of Europe in timely fashion, possibly even the Far East and the Americas.
— Blockage of the canal, even six days, is considered “prolonged” by experts. It caused a number of other ship captains carrying vital cargo to re-route their vessels around West Africa. That may well have meant inconvenient if not intolerable delays for recipients in South or East Asia.
On the scene observers comment
The Financial Times of London interviewed Osama Rabie, head of the Suez Canal Authority March 30, just four hours after the bow and stern of the giant cargo ship Ever Given were finally freed from opposite sides of the waterway.
Nature had helped. Slightly warmer spring tides raised the level of the canal by about three and a half feet, enabling the extrication of the gigantic Ever Given as an impassible obstacle to all ships passing through a narrow southern stretch of the Canal.
The Ever Given freight vessel is just over 1,330 feet long. That’s just slightly more than a quarter of a mile, and the cargo it was carrying consisted of hundreds of crates and even cages of cattle altogether weighing an estimated 200,000 tons. Imagine the challenge of freeing its bow and stern respectively stuck in desert sands on the east and west shorelines of the Suez Canal!
That was the task of a fleet of hastily recruited tugboats, pulling and tugging the gigantic vessel for more than five days before it was jarred loose on March 29 at about noon Greenwich Mean Time. A Dutch Company, Boskalis, had been hastily commissioned to do that job.
To make up for the delay in delivery of cargoes aboard the Ever Given, Mr. Rabie told local TV, the Suez Canal Authority planned to temporarily allow 150 ships a day to transit the canal, far more than the 90 vessels it usually handles. However, an independent global shipping expert cautioned that this was likely to turn out to be somewhat lower, maybe just 80 to 85 vessels a day.
Lessons for the future
422 ships of all sizes were stranded at the northern and southern ends of the canal because of the recent blockage. The Ever Given is being tested stem to stern at its relocated temporary docking place, the Great Bitter Lake nearly at the halfway point of the 120-mile long Suez Canal. Since its opening in 1869, the Canal has been open to navigation except during World Wars and during conflicts in the Middle East, including those in 1967 and 1983.
So what might be some reforms, barring more regional or global wars in the years ahead, that could ensure the safety and relative security of this vital global artery of commerce and well-being of so much of humanity?
Several possibilities come to mind:
—An internationally-recognized Suez Canal authority rule limiting the size of vessels using this vital waterway during peacetimes. Why should a vessel the size of Ever Given (four fifths of a mile long) be permitted to transit the canal? Are new restrictions limiting the size of user vessels necessary?
—Widening the narrowest stretches of the canal to permit safer passage. It appears from maps that both northward and southward sections of the Canal south of the Great Bitter Lake fit this description. Why not widen those channels?
—What if the Suez Canal Authority were to formally or informally consult with principal Canal users to elicit expert advice, perhaps annually? On board advisers from the Authority, coordinating with vessel owners, could thus be updated and learn a lot for the benefit of both sides. That’s how private sector diplomacy could save countless lives and losses worldwide.
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More