The Suez Canal originally opened in 1869 and was the most extensive maritime engineering feat of its day. It immediately became one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, primarily because it reduced the route between Britain and India—one of the most important trading routes of the day—by over 4,500 miles. Cutting through Egypt from Port Said in the north and Suez in the south, the canal remains a bustling shipping lane, connecting Europe to its trading partners in Asia.
Why Is The Suez Canal Being Expanded?
When it first opened in 1869, the Suez Canal consisted of a channel 26 feet deep, 72 feet wide at the bottom, and 200 to 300 feet wide at the surface. Over the next quarter of a century, over 3,000 ships became grounded, and the first expansion project was therefore commissioned in 1876, widening the canal and adding more passing bays.
Over the following 140 years, additional expansions were made, new passing bays were added, and works to counter erosion were completed, continually improving the canal and increasing its importance as a maritime route. The Egyptian government conducted the latest expansion in 2015, and it was thought that this would keep the channel flowing freely for many decades to come.
However, the advent of new “supercontainer”ships carrying goods from Asia into Europe had not entirely been planned for. On 23 March 2021, the container ship Ever Given was thrown off course by a dust storm and beached, blocking the canal. Economists at Lloyds List estimated that the global economy lost $400 million for every hour that the container ship blocked the channel. It remained lodged for six days, further straining an already stretched global supply chain.
Immediately after this, the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) announced that further expansion of the Suez Canal would be initiated. Accordingly, in July 2021, work began, with an estimated 24-month timescale and completion date of July 2023.
What Is Involved In The Suez Canal Expansion?
The Ever Given became lodged in the 30km southern portion of the canal, and this area is being widened 130 feet to the east and deepened from 66 feet to 72 feet. The Chairman of the SCA, Osama Rabie, said in May 2021 that “This will improve ship navigation by 28% in this difficult part of the canal.”
The project has also brought forward plans for a second channel which will increase the capacity of the canal by six ships.
The grounding of the Ever Given served to highlight the ever-increasing impact of shipping on the environment in general and the seas around the Suez Canal to the north and south of Egypt specifically. The levels of pollution from fuel spilled and emissions were already high, and the increased shipping capacity will exacerbate this. This is shown clearly by the increasing size of container ships; in 2007, the largest container ship in the world could carry 8,000 containers, and the Ever Given had a capacity of 20,000.
An additional environmental consideration is the transmission of invasive species between the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Suez. For example, Rabbitfish Siganus luridus (the dusky spinefoot) is native to the Indian and Pacific Oceans. However, after the Suez Canal opened in 1869, this species entered the eastern Mediterranean and was found in Greek waters by 1964. With climate change warming the Mediterranean Sea and the extra capacity in the Suez Canal, the trend of tropical fish such as this one displacing native species will only increase.