A six-day blockage of the Suez Canal by an enormous container ship in March has prompted the waterway's management to accelerate and update plans to expand and modernise the canal, maritime experts say.
Although the Suez Canal Authority announced a less comprehensive version of the expansion plans as far back as 2019, with some of the work taking place in 2020, the Ever Given incident speeded up the process and highlighted areas that needed more work, former ship captain Mohamed El Wakeel told The National.
Mr El Wakeel has over a decade of experience navigating the Suez Canal.
He is the vice dean of the College of Maritime Transport and Technology at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Transport, one of Egypt’s foremost educational institutions.
The focus of the old renovation plan was simply to increase revenue by increasing ship traffic through the waterway, said Mr El Wakeel.
But the Ever Given blockage highlighted the importance of vital changes to reduce the response time of rescue missions should any ships face difficulties.
"With the Suez Canal, time is literally money. Why the Ever Given incident was such a big deal was the sheer amount of revenue that the canal and international shipping companies lost during the blockage. And it was only blocked for six days," Mr El Wakeel said.
The canal’s five mooring stations are set to undergo renovations that will strengthen their structural integrity and better equip them to handle the weight of container ships, which are being built larger than ever before to accommodate more cargo, said SCA spokesman George Safwat.
Five more mooring stations will be built along the length of the 193km waterway, to allow authorities to respond faster to any vessels that malfunction on the canal.
Sixteen new piloting bases are also currently being built along the length of the canal. Each unit will be equipped with state-of-the-art technology that will provide pilots with more accurate readings on weather, ship speeds and currents within the canal.
"The Ever Given incident highlighted the authority's need to purchase and own its own state-of-the-art rescue equipment, from more powerful digging equipment to more effective tugboats," SCA chairman Admiral Osama Rabie said in July.
In May, the SCA unveiled a brand new dredger purchased from Belgium and named after Admiral Rabie’s predecessor Vice Admiral Mohab Mamish. On July 27, another new dredger, lauded as the most powerful in the Middle East, arrived at Port Said from Rotterdam.
In the event of a blockage, the SCA has historically hired rescue equipment from other countries, which increases the time it takes to deal with any problems, said Mr El Wakeel.
"If the SCA has its own high-tech equipment on hand, it will take a fraction of the current time to rescue any malfunctioning vessels," adds Mr El Wakeel.
Mooring stations for giant container vessels are also being built near the east and west banks of the Great Bitter Lake - a part of the canal near the city of Ismailia.
The lake is where the 400-metre Ever Given was detained for three months before the SCA and the ship's owners resolved a claim for damages caused by the canal’s blockage.
While the greater part of the canal’s length consists of a single traffic lane, which ships have to take turns navigating, two bypasses exist along the canal that allow ships to move in both directions simultaneously.
One bypass is located in the north running to the east of the Mediterranean city of Port Said.
The other was created by President Abdel Fattah El Sisi during his first term in office. Completed in 2015, the dredging of the second bypass was one of Egypt's largest national projects in the last decade.
The SCA intends to create another 10km bypass in the southern stretch of the canal by 2023, said Mr Safwat.
That will turn 25 per cent of the canal’s single-lane portions into a double lane area to allow more ships to pass through at any one time.
The Ever Given ran aground in the southern stretch of the waterway, the longest single-lane portion, highlighting the need for more two-lane portions on the canal.
The fourth bypass, when completed, will allow three ships to pass in either direction at the same time, according to a promotional video released by the SCA in July. More ships passing through the canal will in turn increase the SCA's revenue, said Mr El Wakeel.
The planned expansion is expected to almost triple the SCA's annual revenue from $5.84 billion this year to $13.2 billion in 2023. Double the number of ships are also expected to navigate the canal by then, said Mr Safwat.
"Above all else, the Ever Given incident proved that as long as there is one lane for ship traffic, no amount of high-tech rescue equipment is going to stop one ship from halting traffic through the whole canal and causing millions in losses.
"I think the most important part of any future expansion will be to dredge as many double lane sections as possible," said Mr El Wakeel.
The expansions are expected to cost approximately $10 billion.