Are the World’s Canals at Risk?

April 14, 2021

During March 2021 the Ever Given became the most notorious ship in the world and highlighted the lack of preparedness by the Suez Canal authorities. For a couple of weeks everyone appeared to be a maritime recovery expert with opinions on the best method to move the boat. A new Twitter account called ‘Guy With The Digger At Suez Canal” already has over 65 000 followers.

The majority of the press reports and media attention were around the cost of delay with estimates of up to $1 billion and our reliance on global supply chains, however there are many other aspects that were not as widely reported:

  • Approximately 20 livestock ships were trapped and had the blockage lasted any longer the animals could have starved to death with both ethical and biohazard implications.
  • Technology and automotive companies importing integrated circuits from China bound for Europe now potentially have further business interruption risks on top of the global pandemic delays.
  • Egyptian authorities were not planning on releasing the Ever Given until the ship’s owner paid compensation for its removal.
  • Reliance on just-in-time manufacturing for the benefit of short term shareholders and the decreasing amount of costly warehousing. This has already been found wanting with PPE equipment shortages during the initial stages of the Covid-19 pandemic.

On a normal day 50 container ships transit through the Suez Canal that is home to nearly 12% of all ship borne trade. It has been about 70 years since shipping containers started being used revolutionizing global trade and in addition container ship capacity has increased dramatically over the last few decades. The continued use of container ships has lowered prices and vastly expanded availability of goods, yet has also shown us how vulnerable our canals are.

While the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) have started their investigations into the cause of the grounding, Evergreen have stated the ship “was suspected of being hit by a sudden strong wind, causing the hull to deviate from the waterway and accidentally hit the bottom”.

Evergreen Marine Corporation, a Taiwanese transportation and shipping company currently leasing the Ever Given has a substantial and detailed accident prevention program. Emergency response drills are performed for 17 different scenarios with monthly to annual frequencies, yet the grounding happened and caused absolute chaos.

International air transport has received the lion’s share of attention over the last two decades since the 911 attacks and the two main canals, Panama and Suez have not received much attention at all. While the Ever Given blockage appears to be an accident, military strategists must be thinking a bit more about this type of event being inflicted on purpose in the future. Terrorist activities such as cyber-attacks on ship’s computer systems, bribing or threatening of a crew or missile attacks on trapped ships could all be effectively used for military or political gain.

We are all reliant on and affected by international shipping therefore cooperation is required to address these choke points. The navies of a number of nations have been cooperating for many years in combatting piracy and this needs to be extended to the major canals and waterways of the world.

Author – Warrick Asher, April 2021.