May 29, 2024

Suez Canal Blockade

  • The massive cargo ship that had blocked Egypt’s Suez Canal bringing global trade to a near-standstill for almost a week may have been the result of human or technical failure. The ship finally moved on 29th March 2021 after a week-long operation to get it to budge from where it had come aground.

Why this happened?

  • There may have been technical or human errors for this incidence. As noted in 2017 by Maritime Journal, human error accounts for anywhere between 75% and 96% of maritime accidents. According to the Suez Canal Authority (SCA), the principal causes were high winds and a sandstorm that reduced visibility and rendered the ship unable to keep a straight course through the channel.
  • Sand or dust or desert storms occur typically in the dry places of the world, where the particles of dirt are loosely bound to the surface. When it prevails, the wall of dust and debris forms, which moves with the help of strong winds. This wall can be dense, while it may extend up to miles and go as high as several thousand feet.
  • On the morning of March 23, a similar strong desert storm whipped over the parts of Egypt’s Sinai Desert, which is said to have triggered the Suez Canal crisis. A gale-force dust storm moving at the speed of more than 55 kmph prevailed over the Suez Canal that day. Reportedly, the presence of excessive dust caused the mega-ship to deviate from its course and get grounded diagonally near the southern end of the canal.
  • Dust storms are common in the Sinai desert during this time of the year. They are mostly created with the help of extremely strong winds—produced by thunderstorms. In the dry region, winds can easily lift dust rested on the ground, which swirls up to form a dust storm. The storm can travel up to hundreds to thousands of kilometres.
  • Dust storms can also take place in an area, which is devoid of plants, along with a flat surface. These features help the wind to gain momentum and become stronger to drive such storms. These storms are categorised as the common meteorological hazards in arid and semi-arid regions like the Middle East and North Africa.

Why is the Suez Canal so important?

  • The importance of the canal stems first and foremost from its location; it is the only place that directly connects the waters of Europe with the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean and the countries of the Asia-Pacific.
  • Without the Suez, shipments traveling between those parts of the world would have to traverse the entire continent of Africa, adding hefty costs and substantially extending their journey times.
  • The time saved by the passage is almost invaluable. Today, a ship traveling from a port in Italy to India, for instance, would cover around 4,400 nautical miles if it passed through the Suez Canal — a journey that, at a speed of 20 knots, would take about nine days. The second-quickest way to complete that same journey would be via the Cape of Good Hope and around Africa. At the same speed, it would take three weeks to traverse the route, which is 10,500 nautical miles long.
  • About 12% of world trade passes through the canal each year, everything from crude oil to grains to instant coffee. Without Suez, a supertanker carrying Mideast crude oil to Europe would have to travel an extra 6,000 miles around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, adding some $300,000 in fuel costs. Because it has no locks, it can even handle aircraft carriers.
  • The canal’s location makes it a key link for shipping crude oil and other hydrocarbons from countries such as Saudi Arabia to Europe and North America. Among other goods, 54.1 million tons of cereal passed through the canal, 53.5 million tons of ores and metals, and 35.4 million tons of coal and coke in 2019.

Geography and History of Suez Canal:

  • Suez Canal is a sea-level waterway running north-south across the Isthmus of Suez in Egypt to connect the Mediterranean and the Red seas.
  • The canal separates the African continent from Asia, and it provides the shortest maritime route between Europe and the lands lying around the Indian and western Pacific oceans. It is one of the world’s most heavily used shipping lanes.
  • The canal extends 193 km (120 miles) between Port Said (Būr Saʿīd) in the north and Suez in the south, with dredged approach channels north of Port Said, into the Mediterranean, and south of Suez. The canal does not take the shortest route across the isthmus, which is only 121 km (75 miles). Instead, it utilizes several lakes: from north to south, Lake Manzala (Buḥayrat al-Manzilah), Lake Timsah (Buḥayrat al-Timsāḥ), and the Bitter Lakes—Great Bitter Lake (Al-Buḥayrah al-Murrah al-Kubrā) and Little Bitter Lake (Al-Buḥayrah al-Murrah al-Ṣughrā). The Suez Canal is an open cut, without locks, and, though extensive straight lengths occur, there are eight major bends. To the west of the canal is the low-lying delta of the Nile River, and to the east is the higher, rugged, and arid Sinai Peninsula.
  • Prior to construction of the canal (completed in 1869), the only important settlement was Suez, which in 1859 had 3,000 to 4,000 inhabitants. The rest of the towns along its banks have grown up since, with the possible exception of Al-Qanṭarah.
  • Financial troubles forced the Ottoman governor of Egypt to sell a controlling stake in the waterway to Britain in 1875; 13 years later, a multinational summit resulted in an agreement that the canal would be free for all countries to use, both in peace and war.
  • Its positioning made it a flashpoint in both of the 20th century’s major conflicts; in World War I, Turkish forces tried to attack the canal from the east, and in World War II, the Nazis’ Afrika Korps aimed to do the same from the west.
  • But the canal remained under British control until Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized it in 1956, sparking the Suez Crisis that drew threats of invasion from Israel, France and Great Britain.
  • The Suez has been shut down before; for eight years from 1967 it became a border between a warring Egypt and Israel, a conflict that left more than a dozen ships — known as the Yellow Fleet — trapped in the canal for the duration.

Impact of this Blockade:

  • This blockade could cost global trade $6 billion to $10 billion a week and every week the Suez jam continues could knock off about 0.2 to 0.4 percentage points off annual trade growth.
  • The seasonal nature of certain industries such as apparel and perishable goods will also make it harder for them to recover from the situation.
  • Global trade had already been going through its share of turmoil during the pandemic last year and global supply chains had been thrown off gear. Exports from India had seen a dip for most part of last year and it was only beginning to gain momentum in 2021. Micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) among Indian exporters have been especially hard-hit. The ongoing jam in the Canal will also create a further demand-supply imbalance, forcing freight rates to further escalate for all types of vessels.
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