Suez Canal receives giant dredger in planned upgrade

Egypt has received one of two dredgers it has ordered from Dutch Royal IHC. Here, a dredger is seen at work on the new waterway of the Suez Canal on June 13, 2015, in the port city of Ismailia, east of the capital, Cairo.

Posted on April 20, 2021

The Suez Canal Authority is talking about plans to widen the southern section of the canal, only days after the giant Panama-flagged container vessel, Ever Given, went aground and became wedged across the international maritime passageway, causing a weeklong blockage.

CAIRO — A giant dredger has made it to the Great Bitter Lakes, near the Suez Canal, in preparation for joining the fleet of the international maritime passageway.

Named for the former head of the Suez Canal Authority, Mohab Mameesh, and built by Dutch Royal IHC, together with another dredger, for 300 million euros ($360 million), the new digger is 147.4 meters (484 feet) long and 23 meters (75 feet) wide. It can dredge to 35 meters (115 feet) deep; the canal’s depth is 24 meters (79 feet).

Its arrival comes only days after the authority chairman, Adm. Osama Rabie, said the authority was contemplating widening the southern section of the waterway.

The widening of this section, maritime transport specialists said, acquires great importance in the light of developments in maritime transport around the world and the emergence of a new generation of super-large vessels.

“This widening can be implemented in the coming period, even as most of the container vessels present now can pass through the canal,” independent maritime transport expert Ahmed al-Shami told Al-Monitor.

Rabie said April 6, “If there is a 250-meter [820-foot-wide] part that needs expansion, maybe we will make it 400 meters [1,312 feet].” This would be enough to allow for the passage of the world’s largest vessels even under extraordinary circumstances.

The 220,000-ton, 400-meter-long super-large Panama-flagged Ever Given went aground in a single-lane stretch of the canal about 6 kilometers north of its southern entrance March 23, creating a logjam unprecedented in its modern history.

Over 400 vessels were stranded in the one week of the canal’s blockage, making shipping and insurance companies incur hundreds of millions of dollars in losses.

The canal authority also lost a lot of money in lost transit fees. The authority is now impounding the ship and demanding a whopping $1 billion in compensation for the suspension of traffic in the canal.

The widening of the southern section of the canal, authority officials say, will ensure that this part of the canal is not blocked in the future.

“There is a plan for the upgrade of the canal that should be fully implemented by 2023,” George Safwat, the official spokesman of the SCA, told Al-Monitor. “It includes an upgrade of the northern and southern entrances to the canal.”

If carried out soon, the planned upgrade of the southern section of the Suez Canal will be the second to be implemented in the international waterway in less than a decade.

Egypt launched the first upgrade of the canal in 2014, when it dug a parallel channel to it, allowing two-way traffic for the first time since its opening in November 1869.

The creation of the parallel channel eased traffic and cut waiting times in the canal to three hours from 11 hours in the past. The new channel also reduced transit time to 11 hours from 18 in the past.

The multibillion-dollar project was the centerpiece of Presidency Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s first term.

The canal is a main source of income for Egypt, contributing between $5 billion and $6 billion in revenues to the populous country every year.

The Suez Canal is not the most important national income generator for Egypt, given other more important sources, such as remittances from Egyptian nationals working in other countries (over $20 billion) and tourism (which contributes over $8 billion). Nevertheless, the canal is very important for Egypt’s political clout on the international stage, political analysts said.

“The latest crisis has shown that the world cannot do without the Suez Canal,” Tarek Fahmi, a political science professor at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor. “The fact that there are no alternative routes to the canal gives Egypt its weight and political importance.”

The weight the canal lends Egypt on the international stage was manifest during the one week of its latest blockage.

The quickest sea route between Asia and Europe, almost 15% of the world’s shipping traffic passes through the Suez Canal.

Total oil flows through the Suez Canal and the SUMED Pipeline, which runs from the Ain Sokhna terminal in the Gulf of Suez, near the Red Sea, to offshore Sidi Kerir, Alexandria, in the Mediterranean Sea, accounted for about 9% of total seaborne traded petroleum (crude oil and refined petroleum products) in 2017, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

Liquefied natural gas flows through the Suez Canal and the SUMED pipeline accounted for about 8% of global LNG trade, the US agency says.

The March 23 blockage occurred at an old section of the canal.

The expected upgrade of this section apparently has Sisi’s full support. On March 30, the Egyptian president said his administration would make the money needed for the purchase of equipment required by the canal authority immediately available.

Sisi’s administration came under intense pressure from the international community during the canal blockage.

Rabie said the Egyptian president called him more than once a day to get updates on the efforts to refloat the ship stuck in the canal. Rabie quoted Sisi as saying he entrusts the admiral and his colleagues with Egypt’s reputation.

Royal IHC is building another giant dredger for the canal authority. That one will be named after former Egyptian Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi.

Both diggers will be used in the future upgrade plans of the canal, along with other equipment at the disposal of the SCA, the authority says.

This expected upgrade also has the full support of the Egyptian parliament, which says it will make the canal more capable of dealing with developments in international maritime transport.

“This expansion will make the canal more able to deal with the new generation of container vessels,” Mahmud al-Dabaa, a member of the parliamentary Transport Committee, told Al-Monitor.

However, widening the southern section of the canal faces some challenges, according to Mahfouz Taha, a retired Egyptian navy admiral who works as an adviser to the canal authority.

These challenges, he added, include the cost of the project, which can be high.

“The geography of the area where the southern section is located is also challenging,” Taha told Al-Monitor. “Apart from its mountainous nature, the area also contains an old tunnel, namely the Martyr Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel, which is not easy to deal with.”

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