Maritime transportation has a vital role to play in our daily life as it benefits every single person across the world. Despite the fact that the developments in the aviation industry have made the movement of people and goods faster, the shipping industry remains critical to the growth of economies.
As a backbone of the international trade, freight transportation enables the movement of tonnes and thousands of goods- from toys to trucks- every day through the vast and unending oceans and seas. According to International Chamber of Shipping, the shipping industry, with more than over 50,000 merchant ships offering service internationally, carries out almost 90 percent of world trade.
However, it’s not only the various natural bodies that enable the international seaborne trade, but a number of human interventions in marine transportation also strengthened the movement of people and goods worldwide. The man-made canals in different parts of the world have transformed the international shipping by shortening the shipping routes and reducing operating costs.
Currently, the major man-made canals across the world, such as the Panama Canal, Volga-Don Canal, the Corinth Canal, the Grand Canal and the Suez Canal, provide alternative transportation routes across major seawater networks across the world, facilitating an efficient marine transportation.
The Suez Canal
The 193.30 km (120 miles)-long Suez Canal is an artificial sea-level waterway located in Egypt and connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Gulf of Suez, a northern branch of the Red Sea. Officially opened in November 1869, the Suez Canal is one of the most heavily used shipping routes in the world, witnessing the passage of thousands of vessels every year.The canal, which separates Asia from the African continent, offers a shortest maritime route between Europe and the regions that share a border with the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific Ocean. The journey from Europe through the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, transiting through the Suez Canal, cuts around 7,000 kilometres off the journey compared to the one carries out through the South Atlantic and southern Indian oceans. The canal also connects the Port Said in northeast Egypt with Port Tewfik at the city of Suez in the south.
The construction of the Suez Canal was carried out between 1859 and 1869 by the Suez Canal Company, and the Suez Canal Authority owns and maintains the waterway. In 2015, Egypt completed a major expansion of the Suez Canal that saw the deepening of the parts of the canal and the construction of a second 35km-long shipping lane along part of the main waterway. The expansion allowed the canal to accommodate two-way traffic along part of the route and also the transiting of larger vessels. In December 2017, the world’s largest container ship, the 400-meter long OOCL Hong Kong, passed through the Suez Canal carrying 21,400 containers. Witnessing around 8 percent of global sea-borne trade annually, the canal plays a significant role in the growth of Egypt’s economy. According to Reuters, the Suez Canal generated revenue of $5.3 billion in 2017.
Though the Suez Canal wasn’t formally completed until 1869, there is a long history of notice in connecting both the Nile River in Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea.The history of the Suez Canal dates back to around 40 centuries as the idea of linking the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Sea emerged during the period of the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt. The concept of a canal that connects these seas and the Nile River lasted until the construction of the first canal in the area, linking both the seas through Nile River under the reign of Senausret III, Pharao of Egypt (1887-1849 BC). However, the canal was often abandoned during many years following the construction.
At the same time, the canal was also reopened several times for navigation under the reign of various rulers including Sity I (1310 BC), Necho II (610 BC), Persian King Darius (522 BC), Emperor Trajan (117 AD) and Amro Ibn Elass (640 AD), among others. The historic documents suggest that the canal was extended, and several other attempts to build new canals were also carried out during these periods. The first modern effort to build a canal came in the late 1700s, during Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egypt expedition. He believed that building a French-controlled canal on the Isthmus of Suez would cause trade problems for the British as they would either have to pay dues to France or continue sending goods over land or around the southern part of Africa. Studies for Napoleon’s canal plan began in 1799, but a mistake in measurement showed the sea levels between the Mediterranean and the Red Seas as being too different for a canal to be feasible and construction was immediately stopped.
With the rise of new Europe and the development of industry and seaborne trade, entrepreneurs began to think of building canals. One such plan aimed at connecting the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Ocean directly, thus saving time either to sail around Africa or transhipping freight or passengers across the Suez Peninsula. The next attempt to build a canal in the area occurred in the mid-1800s when a French diplomat and engineer, Ferdinand de Lesseps, convinced the Egyptian viceroy Said Pasha to support the building of a canal. In 1858, the Universal Suez Ship Canal Company (La Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez)was formed and given the right to begin construction of the canal and operate it for 99 years, after which time, the Egyptian government would take over control of the canal.
Construction of the Suez Canal
The construction of the Suez Canal officially began on April 25, 1859. It was estimated that a total of 2,613 million cubic feet of earth- 600 million on land and 2,013 million through dredging- would have to be moved for building the canal. Furthermore, the total original cost of the project was estimated at 200 million francs.The decision to build a canal connecting the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, however, invited criticism from Briton, which considered the project as a political scheme set up to weaken the country’s dominance in seaborne trade. Britain continued to oppose the project until the Empire bought a 44 percent stake in the canal after the Egyptian government auctioned off its shares in 1875 due to financial problems.
Initially, the construction of the canal was carried out by forced labourers. It is said that thousands of people were forcefully assigned to dig the canal using picks and shovels until Pasha banned the use of forced labour in 1863. This compelled the Suez Canal Company to bring custom-made steam and coal powered shovels and dredgers to build the canal. With the help of this machinery, the project received the boost it required and allowed the waters of the Mediterranean flow into the Red Sea through the canal on November 17, 1869. When it opened for the navigation, the Suez Canal was 200 to 300 feet wide at the surface, 72 feet wide at the bottom and 25 feet deep. At the time of completion, the total cost of the project was more than twice original estimates.
The Suez Canal and political crises
After completion of the project, the Suez Canal had a significant impact on world trade despite the traffic through the waterway was below expectations in the initial years. Meanwhile, the financial problems linked with the construction of the canal allowed the British government to buy the stakes owned by Egyptian interests in 1875 to become the major shareholder in the Suez Canal Company. The canal was vital to the British economy as it provided shorter sea route to its colonies and the oilfields of the Persian Gulf.
Britain strengthened its control over Egypt in 1875 when the latter went bankrupt, allowing the banks in Europe to take control of the country financially. As the French and British continued their control over the country, it started resentment among the Egyptians. This caused Brittan to invade Egypt in 1882. Though Egypt remained virtually independent due to the Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1936, Britain took complete control of the Suez Canal. During the First World War, Britain announced Egypt a protectorate and sent forces to protect the canal, and this lasted till 1922 when Britain provided nominal independence to Egypt. Though the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty declared Egypt as sovereign state 1936, Britain only agreed to withdraw its troops from Egypt in 1956.
The major political unrest linked to the Suez Canal, known as the Suez Crisis, started in July 1956, when the then Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal and closed the Straits of Tiran. The decision resulted in the invasion of Egypt by the UK, France, and Israel. It was only after the intervention of the United Nations, the three forces withdrew from Egypt, allowing the country to reopen the canal for commercial shipping. The political unrest, however, continued for a long time to come and the canal was shut down by the Egyptian authorities in 1967 during Six-day War between Israel and Egypt. The closing of the canal also led to the stranding of 15 shipping vessels in the middle of the canal, at the Great Bitter Lake. These vessels, known as Yellow Fleet, remained trapped there till 1975 after Egypt reopened the Suez Canal after peace talks with Israel.
Since then, the canal remains as a significant transport link between the Mediterranean and Red Seas, allowing the international ships to avoid the difficult voyage around the southern tip of Africa. The world longest canal without a lock, according to the Suez Canal Authority, expects to raise the daily average of travelling vessels to 97 ships ad revenue of $ 13.226 billion by the year 2023.
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