Sunday , July 25 2021

Suez Canal: Container ship blockage forces Syria to ration fuel as it awaits resupply

Suez Canal officials hoped that high tide and dredging efforts could see the giant ship freed on Saturday night, four days after it ran aground. But despite progress the previous night in freeing the rudder and propeller, the vessel remains wedged across the canal.

Dredging efforts continued Sunday, according to Ever Given’s operator, Evergreen Marine, with attempts to refloat the vessel due to resume from 2 p.m. local time (9 a.m. ET).

Meanwhile, the backlog of ships awaiting transit through the vital Egyptian waterway has grown to 327, according to Leth Agencies, the canal’s service provider.

Syria’s Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources said the blockage of the Suez Canal had “hindered the oil supplies to Syria and delayed arrival of a tanker carrying oil and oil derivations to Syria,” state-run SANA news reported.

Amid fears over fuel supplies, the Middle Eastern nation has been forced to ration “the available quantities of petroleum derivatives mainly diesel and benzene to ensure their vital availability for the longest possible time,” SANA said Saturday.

The step has been taken “in order to guarantee the continued supply of basic services to Syrians such as bakeries, hospitals, water stations, communication centers, and other vital institutions,” according to SANA, citing the ministry.

Syria will continue to ration oil supplies until “the return of normal movement of the navigation via the Suez Canal, which may take an unknown time,” it added.

The Ever Given, a huge ship almost as long as the Empire State Building is tall, ran aground in the Egyptian canal on Tuesday after being caught in 40-knot winds and a sandstorm. Authorities are also investigating possible human or technical errors.

The blockage, in what is one of the world’s busiest and most important waterways, could have a major impact on already stretched global supply chains, with disruption escalating with each day that passes.

A team of expert salvors from Dutch firm SMIT Salvage and Japan’s Nippon Salvage — who have worked on several high-profile operations in the past — has been appointed to help the Suez Canal Authoriity re-float the ship, the charter company Evergreen Marine said.

Dredgers have been working to extract vast quantities of sand and mud from around the port side of the 224,000-ton vessel’s bow.

“Having removed more than 20,000 tons of sand and mud, the dredging operation underway has succeeded in loosening the Ever Given’s bow within the bank of the Suez Canal and the ship’s stern has been cleared from the sand bank,” Evergreen Marine said in an update Sunday.

“The rudder and propeller of the vessel are fully functional and expected to provide additional support to tugboats assigned to move the container ship from the accident site so that normal transit may again resume within the canal.”

Speaking at a news conference Saturday, SCA chairman Osama Rabie gave details of the rescue operation, which he described as “technically difficult” and “involving many factors.”

“We are facing a difficult and complicated situation, we work in a rocky soil, the tides are very high, in addition to the huge size of the ship and the number of containers that make it difficult,” he said. “We cannot set a specific date for the ship to float, it depends on the ship’s response.”

Around 9,000 tons of ballast water have been removed from the ship, Rabie said, with the dredging taking place during low tides while 14 tugs worked during high tides. Rescue teams managed to temporarily restart the rudder and propellers on Friday night before a low tide stalled their efforts, he said.

Two additional heavy tugboats are expected to arrive at the Ever Given “presumably early evening” on Sunday, a spokesman for Boskalis, a sister company of SMIT Salvage, told CNN.

The pair have a combined pulling capacity of around 400 tons, said spokesman Martijn Schuttevaer. Once the tugboats arrive, it could take a few hours to hook up to the Ever Given, he said.

Boskalis’ chief executive said Friday that he hoped those two tugs’ extra pulling power — combined with dredging, a high tide of 40 to 50 centimeters, and the “lever power” of the ship’s stern being relatively free — could be enough to wrest the container ship free.

A crane that could be used to remove containers from the ship’s bow, should that plan fail, has also not yet arrived, according to Boskalis.

On Saturday, Rabie described that scenario — which would lighten the ship’s load — as a time-consuming and painstaking process to which they “hopefully” would not have to resort.

Rabie added that the reasons behind the accident remain unclear. “There are many factors or reasons, fast winds and the sandstorm could have been a reason but not the main reason — it could have been a technical mistake or human error,” he said. “There will be further investigations.”

Meanwhile, billions of dollars’ worth of vital cargo and sensitive products are backlogged on the hundreds of vessels whose way is blocked. Around a dozen of them are carrying livestock.

The EU director of NGO Animals International Gabriel Paun warned that thousands of animals being transported on the vessels — mostly Romanian — could be at risk of dying if the situation is not resolved in the next few days.

CNN’s Magdy Samaan reported from Cairo and Mohammed Tawfeeq from Baghdad, while Laura Smith-Spark wrote from London. CNN’s Mostafa Salem and Mick Krever contributed to this report.

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