The container ship Ever Given which got stuck in the Suez Canal recently (Image credit: BBC)

Smooth sail of Suez Canal down the ages

The Suez Canal, one of the most important waterways in the world, was recently in the news for about a week. A container ship, named Ever Given had ran aground and stuck diagonally in the canal on March 23. As a result, international shipping had come to a halt in the canal. Given the importance of the canal, according to even modest estimates, there has been a colossal loss to international trade by the recent incident.

Here are some facts by which one can gauge the importance of the canal:

About 10 % of the global trade flows through the canal. Goods worth $ 9.6 billion pass through it every day. Over 50 ships pass through it per day.

Since ancient times, mankind has sought to build a water passage through Egypt to link the Red Sea with the Mediterranean either indirectly through a canal linking the Red Sea with the Nile river as in the Pharaonic times, or directly. A proposal was even given for the construction of a canal linking the Nile river with the Red Sea during the time of Caliph Umar, but it was put down because the authorities in Medina thought that it will make the capital vulnerable to the Byzantines who were quite active in the Mediterranean. It needs to be mentioned that it was only in the second half of Caliph Umar’s reign that Egypt was taken from the Byzantines.

But it was only in the second half of the 19th century, in 1869, that a canal came into existence with the initiative of a French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps. The construction started in 1859 and it is estimated that about 1.5 million workers took part in the endeavour.

With the construction of the canal the distance between London and Mumbai was reduced by about 8,900 km. The length of the canal is 193 km and it connects Port Said on the Mediterranean coast with Port Tewfick at the city of Suez. The canal is operated and maintained by the state-owned Suez Canal Authority of Egypt and it is an important source of revenue for the country.

In 1956, President Nasser of Egypt nationalized the canal. Before that, though the canal was the property of the Egyptian government, French and British firms had a stake in it. This led to the Suez Crisis of October-November 1956 in which Britain, France and Israel invaded Egypt. The two superpowers, the US and USSR, showed maturity and the crisis was averted and the canal was handed back to Egypt.

The canal was closed for eight years between 1967 and 1975 on account of the Six Day War between Egypt and Israel. During the War, Israeli forces occupied the Sinai Peninsula, including the entire east bank of the Suez Canal. However, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War the Egyptian army retook control over the canal by recapturing its eastern bank and the Sinai Peninsula.

On March 23, Ever Given, a container ship, because of the loss of steering control started to drift towards the bank of the Canal. The presence of the South wind is mainly attributed to have pushed the ship in that direction.  

Now that the Canal is once again open for international shipping after incessant efforts by the authorities the movement of ships and international commerce is once again expected to come on track. It needs to be mentioned that tug boats and dredgers were used to free the ship and about 30,000 cubic metres of mud and sand was removed from beneath the ends of the ship.

Experts are of the view that the canal needs constant dredging because of the sandy winds blowing in the region. It needs to be mentioned that the Sinai Peninsula is a desert. It was in October 2017 that a Japanese ship got stuck here last time.

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