The Suez Canal of Egypt that connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean allows for direct shipping between Europe and Asia. In the absence of this canal the ships would have required to go all the way round the Cape of Good Hope in Africa, resulting in a much longer voyage time. The world saw the spectacle of the Suez Canal blockage when a gigantic container ship that was stuck in the Suez canal for almost a week.
The Ever Given with its 18,300 containers was blocking the canal causing an inestimable loss of revenue and unprecedented trouble for the shippers. Although, the ship was dislodged on 29th March, the canal authorities have forbidden it to leave until the owners pay $1 bn in compensation. It will take at least 2 months time before the ocean shipping industry once again starts functioning normally. In today’s post we are going to discuss the top lessons we need to learn post Suez Canal blockage.
Better forecasting of unforeseen events
To begin with, all the relevant parties in the maritime industry should perform a better forecasting of possible risks. They need to enumerate the extent of the possible disruptions. This can be done in terms of financial losses, and the hours of disruption. In this particular case, the forecasting should involve the weather and the width/depth of the canal. Special considerations should be given to the size of the ships plying the canal. The international maritime shipping industry needs to make an exhaustive list of associated risks. Moreover, the minor catastrophes should be given serious considerations and used to red flag such episodes.
Safety and security
Safety and security threats should also be a major concern. Maritime terrorism are usually thought of as the worst-case scenario that can create massive financial disruption. Terrorism is also considered to be a substantial threat in choke points like Suez Canal. The blockage has made it abundantly clear that more importance needs to be given to safety threats. For instance accidents are not much discussed even though they are more likely to occur than terrorism. Basically, what we need is a better understanding of all kinds of disruptions and threats so as to prepare and deal with any unforeseen events.
The size of the container ships
The size of the container vessels have steadily increased. Ships of over 20,000 plus TEUs are no longer a rare sight. The increased capacity of the vessels have lowered the transportation costs. Low transportation cost obviously has a positive impact on the global trade but there are still several choke points. The rising throughput resulted in unbalanced development making the international shipping industry more vulnerable to this type of incident.
High stacking of containers entails the risk of being damaged easily by strong winds. This might have played a role in the loss of containers from the cargo ships in the past few years. The blockage proved that the industry was absolutely not prepared to respond to a crisis like this. In fact many of the ship salvage companies have warned about the problem of giant vessels. Any problem with the oversized container ships cannot be remedied effectively and economically. Simply said, the size of the ships are only going to get bigger, so the governments should have contingency plans to battle this kind of incident in the future.
Efforts towards lowering the effects of disruptions
Yet another important step that should be taken in this regard is to minimize the impact of the disruptions. The recent blockage was clearly because of a lax in planning, development and implementation that can be avoided by a thorough risk analysis. Mitigation of disruption can also be done by utilizing a mix of networks like railway, sea way and roadways all around the world. There is also a dire need to properly assess the effect of efficiency enhancements to address the problem of a slow recovery.
Alternatives to Suez Canal have to made safer
The sole alternative to the Suez Canal is a longer route around Africa. However, the most pressing concern for this route is piracy. For years merchant ships have been the target of attack of the Somalian pirates and several shipping companies are concerned about piracy risks. Although the Somalian pirates have been considerably suppressed but the threat has not been eliminated for good. The problem of piracy is still present in several routes across West Africa and the Gulf of Guinea.
Seafarers as key workers
The maritime industry is a vital link to ensure timely deliveries of products. However, this sector didn’t get the recognition it deserved during the pandemic. This has been highlighted by the time the countries took to designate seafarers as key workers during the peak of the pandemic. 25 seafarers from India are stranded in the vessel which is not allowed to leave the canal. In this situation, there is a growing concern on part of the seafarers union about the safety of the crew.
Safety and risk management have to be improved
To begin with, let us be clear that the Suez Canal has a near perfect overall safety record. On an average, 19,000 vessels ply the canal in a year. There have been only 8 untoward incidents per year in the last 10 years. It also needs to be noted that the safety records of the ocean cargo industry has considerably improved in the last decade. The container shipping industry has put forth a lot of efforts towards stepping up the risk management systems and protocols.
That be said, it surely needs to be admitted that the shipping industry needs to work on minimizing the risks associated with mega container vessels. This is all the more important for bottle-neck routes like the Suez Canal or the Panama Canal. If a container vessel obstructs the path of one of these canals, the ports should have the capability of sending a ship salvage team within the shortest possible time. Moreover, there should be additional restrictions on mega container ships entering very narrow waterways. The weather forecast should also be taken into account while permitting a ship to enter a canal.