Egypt Approves Plan to Expand Southern Suez Canal

An SCA-operated dredger at the site of the Ever Given grounding (SCA)

Published May 13, 2021 12:06 AM by Njiraini Muchira

Authorities in Egypt have officially unveiled plans to expand and deepen the Suez Canal waterway after a mega-ship blockage caused substantial losses and raised the prospect that  shipping lines might seek alternative routes.

On Tuesday, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi approved the project, which will involve the widening and deepening of the southern part of the canal where giant boxship Ever Given went aground and blocked traffic for six days in March.

Suez Canal Authority (SCA) chairman Osama Rabie unveiled the expansion plan in a televised address attended by El-Sisi, stating that it was crucial in order to improve the navigation of ships. “It will lead to improvements in the ability of the guide and the captain of any ship to navigate inside the canal,” he said.

SCA has claimed losses totaling $916 million due to the Ever Given's grounding and the resulting blockade, which closed the quickest maritime link between Asia and Europe for nearly a week. With the canal being one of Egypt’s main sources of foreign currency - generating $5.6 billion in revenues in 2020 - the country is eager to ensure that it retains its dominance on Asia-Europe trade lanes. 

Last year, 18,829 ships with a total net tonnage of 1.17 billion passed through the canal, and the average daily traffic ranged from 40 to 50 ships.

Some shipping lines and countries like Japan are considering Russia’s Northern Sea Route as an alternative, but geopolitical and navigational hurdles remain. Russia has in recent weeks deployed nuclear icebreakers to improve accessibility for maritime traffic along the route, which saw annual traffic last year totaling 133 ships.

Though the Cape of Good Hope also stands as an alternative route, the additional 15 days needed for transit and the greater use of fuel compared to the Suez Canal route is a deterrent to shipping lines.

About 12 percent of the world trade volume passes through the Suez Canal, making it one of the world's busiest waterways.

To safeguard the competitive position of the Suez Canal, SCA intends to widen the canal’s southern stretch by about 40 meters to the east on the side of the Sinai Peninsula. The segment would also be deepened to 72 feet from the current 66 feet in depth.

The project, which will be implemented over the next 24 months, also includes a five nautical mile extension of a second lane of the waterway that opened in 2015. That would bring the double-lane stretch of the canal to 44 nm, allowing more vessels to pass through the canal.

Last month, SCA took delivery of a giant 48,000 ton dredge dubbed Mohab Mamish, which will be part of a fleet undertaking the project.

In 2015, Egypt invested $8.5 billion on an expansion project of the northern section of the canal, but the southern portion between the Great Bitter Lake region and the Red Sea was never improved.