A Breakdown of the Suez Canal Blockage

By Naya Kurdy

Damascus, Syria

The Suez Canal blockage didn’t only affect the global shipping industry and the Egyptian economy, but also countless businesses (Photo Credit: Bloomberg)

Beginning on March 23, the Suez Canal was blocked for six days by the accidental grounding of the ship Ever Given. Registered in Panama and operated by the shipping company Evergreen, the Ever Given was bound for the port city of Rotterdam in the Netherlands from China. The ship was passing northwards through the canal on its way to the Mediterranean when the 200,000 ton ship ran aground and became lodged sideways across the waterway, preventing other vessels from passing through that part of the Suez Canal.


The Suez Canal is an artery of world trade, connecting the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and separating Africa from Asia while providing an avenue for vessels to pass between Asia, the Middle East and Europe. It is one of the busiest trade routes in the world, with approximately 12% of all global trade moving through it. Energy exports like liquified natural gas, Crude oil and refined oil make up 5% to 10% of global shipments. The rest of the traffic is largely consumer products like fire pits, clothing, furniture, manufacturing, auto parts and exercise equipment. The main alternative is a passage around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, which takes considerably longer.


Evergreen Marine said the ship was “suspected of being hit by a sudden strong wind, causing the hull to deviate...and accidentally hit the bottom and run aground.” On Wednesday, BSM confirmed that all crew were “safe and accounted for,” with no reports of injuries.


According to an analysis of data from ship tracking websites, the bank effect (the tendency of the stern of a ship to swing toward the near bank when operating in a river or constricted waterway) may have contributed to the grounding, along with the lateral forces of west-to-east winds pushing sideways against the northbound ship.


On March 25, the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) suspended navigations through the canal until Ever Given could be refloated––with eight tugboats assisting in the attempt to pull it free. Peter Berdowski, Chief Executive of Royal Boskalis Westminster, the Dutch company engaged by the SCA to manage marine salvage operations, said that such an operation “can take days to weeks.”


On March 27, the SCA said that fourteen tugboats were trying to take advantage of that day’s high tide and that more would arrive the following day if the attempt failed. Yukito Higaki, president of Shoei Kisen Kaisha, reported that the ship did not appear to be damaged and said, “The ship is not taking water. Once it refloats, it should be able to operate.” By that time, more than 300 ships were delayed at both ends and in the middle of the canal, with others still approaching and others having altered their routes.


On March 29, the ship was set free at around 3:00 PM, according to shipping officials. President Abdel Fatteh El-Sisi of Egypt celebrated on Twitter: “Egyptians have succeeded today in ending the crisis of the stuck ship in the Suez Canal despite the great complexities surrounding this situation in every aspect.”


The stern of the Ever Given was clearly free from land, but it was some hours before it was certain that the ship’s bulbous bow had been successfully pulled from the mud and muck on the banks of the canal.


While the true damage and cost is difficult to evaluate, Lt. Gen. Osama Rabie, Chairman of the SCA, put the cost to Egypt of the distribution at between $12 million and $15 million for each day and said an investigation would determine who is responsible for paying it.


The Suez Canal blockage didn’t only affect the global shipping industry and the Egyptian economy, but also countless businesses, such as domestic transport providers, retailers, supermarkets and manufacturers.


Many believe that the incident exposed a need to investigate issues of supply chain resilience and disruption to just-in-time manufacturing already facing shortages due to COVID-19.