SUEZ CITY, Egypt: The six-day closure of Egypt's Suez Canal has highlighted the need for upgrading technical infrastructure, including specialist equipment and procedures to prevent disruptions in one of the world's busiest waterways, according to sources in the shipping industry.
On March 23, a 400-meter-long container ship, Ever Given, ran aground in the canal, bringing international shipping traffic to a halt. It took specialist teams nearly a week to free the ship, through extensive dredging and tugging operations, and open the canal for business again.
According to shipping industry sources cited by Reuters, the incident has underscored a long-standing problem.
"The average size of most vessels has increased exponentially over the last 15 years. The ability to salvage these bigger ships has not," said Peter Townsend, a marine insurance industry veteran, as reported by Reuters.
"The issue is getting containers off essentially a 20-storey high building at sea," he added.
Commenting on the ship's grounding, Michael Kingston, an international shipping specialist and an adviser to the United Nation's International Maritime Organization, said: "The obvious way to lighten a vessel ... is to take the containers off. They had no way of doing it. No equipment was readily available."
Following the Ever Given incident, SCA chairman Osama Rabie announced that Egypt has ordered two new tugboats, one to be delivered next week and another in August, five Chinese tugboats, and the largest dredger in the Middle East.
According to industry sources, besides larger tugboats, dredgers, and offloaders, the SCA needs to issue stricter guidelines on how ships navigate the canal. The guidelines could include using tugs for large vessels or restricting their transit to daytime, they added.
During a visit to the canal, Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said he would consider extending a second channel south of the one Egypt opened in 2015 to prevent clogging of the canal if a ship becomes stuck.
"It's up to the technical people. We don't want to take measures just due to extraordinary situations," he added.