Suez Canal Works to Clear Backlog as Shipping Convoys Resume

By Nadeen Ebrahim | March 30, 2021

ISMAILIA, Egypt — The Suez Canal expects 140 ships to pass on Tuesday after the freeing of a container ship stranded for nearly a week allowed it to reopen, but experts warned that disruptions to global shipping and at ports could take months to resolve.

The blockage threw global supply chains into disarray, threatening costly delays for firms already wrestling with COVID-19 restrictions, and nearly doubled rates for oil product tankers.

Shipping convoys through the canal resumed on Monday evening after tugs pulled the 400-meter-long (430-yard) Ever Given container carrier free from the spot where it became wedged amid high winds on March 23.

“We want to reaffirm in a clear message to the world that everything is back to the way it was,” Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi told reporters on Tuesday from a platform on the canal, as container ships passed behind him.

The Ever Given’s grounding across a southern section of the canal forced a halt to all traffic, leading to a build-up of 422 ships at either end of the canal and along its course.

Suez Canal Authority chairman Osama Rabie said 95 ships would pass by 1900 local time (1700 GMT) on Tuesday and a further 45 by midnight, reasserting that he hoped the build-up would be cleared in three to four days.

“We’ll work day and night and God willing we’ll get it done in the shortest time possible,” Rabie said.

Knock-on effects to global shipping and at ports could take much longer to disentangle.

Though the build-up around the Suez Canal might be cleared in four to five days, it could take several months to deal with backlogs at ports, Jan Hoffmann, an UNCTAD expert on logistics, told a briefing.

Shipping group Maersk has also said disruptions to international shipping could last for months.

About 15% of global shipping traffic moves through the canal. The estimated value of the cargo that had been held up by its closure was $89 billion, Hoffmann said.


Sisi said the Ever Given’s grounding had drawn attention to the importance of the waterway, which is the shortest shipping route between Europe and Asia.

“We didn’t hope for something like this, but fate was doing its work. It showed and reaffirmed the reality and importance” of the canal, Sisi said as he greeted staff on a visit to the Suez Canal Authority in Ismailia.

“In light of all the talk about alternatives and things of that kind – no, this is a global facility for international trade.”

Rabie has said the SCA will look at giving discounts to shippers affected by the stoppage.

“We need to study it in the right way because the number of ships is large, including ships that waited for one day, ships that waited for two days, and ships that waited for three days or four days — not all of them will take the same percentages,” he told a news conference late on Monday.

He also said the canal was reinforcing its technical capabilities by bringing in more tug boats and dredging machinery.

Rabie has suggested that the weather and human error could have played a role in grounding the Ever Given.

On Tuesday, investigators boarded the ship, which is in a lake that separates two sections of the canal, according to a canal source and a shipping agent who did not give further details.

The incident is expected to give rise to flurry of insurance claims, though the Japanese owner of the Ever Given said it had not received any claims or lawsuits over the blockage.

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