18 - 24 November 1999
Issue No. 456
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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From the Red to the MedBy Amira Ibrahim
The Suez Canal, one of Egypt's main sources of foreign currency, yesterday celebrated the 130th anniversary of its opening to shipping. Ahmed Ali Fadel, Canal Authority chairman, spoke exclusively to Al-Ahram Weekly.
"The Suez Canal has been a symbol of the Egyptian people's struggle ever since they began work on it almost a century and a half ago. It has always inspired Egyptians to maintain and defend it," Fadel said. "Since the Canal came under Egyptian management, the government has always sought to improve its performance in order to cope with the continued increase in maritime transport," he added.
Over a million ships have passed through the canal in the past 130 years, with a net cargo of over 12 billion tons. Under Egyptian management, 398,000 ships passed through, bearing a net cargo of 10,244 billion tons. The present capacity of the Suez Canal is over 25,000 vessels annually. Canal revenues under Egyptian management have reached a total of $30.5 billion, compared to $2.5 billion under French management, Fadel stated.
"In the beginning, ships bearing cargo of 5,000 tons could pass through the waterway. At the time it was nationalised in 1956, the draft had been increased from 22 to 34 feet, allowing the passage of ships carrying cargo of 30,000 tons," he added.
Work on the canal began 1859 and continued for 10 years. Over 1.5 million Egyptian workers took part, and more than 125,000 lost their lives. The canal was opened to navigation on 17 November 1869.
The canal was run by an international company until its nationalisation in July 1956. It was closed to shipping during the 1956 War, and again from 1967 to 1975. Cleared of mines and wreckage, it was reopened in 1975 and enlarged in 1980.
According to Fadel, operations to deepen and widen the waterway are continuing. The permissible draft has been increased to 58 feet, allowing the passage of giant ships with a cargo of 190,000 tons. The draft will reach 72 feet by 2010. This will allow even larger ships, with a cargo of 360,000 tons, to pass through. "This means that the canal will be able to accommodate 92 per cent of the world's maritime transport fleet," Fadel explained.
For now, 14 per cent of total world trade, 26 per cent of oil exports and 41 per cent of the total volume of goods and cargo that reach Arab Gulf ports go through the Canal. The average time for negotiating the canal is 16 hours for the south-bound convoy and 11 hours for convoys travelling in the opposite direction.
As long as the canal itself and surrounding areas are developed further, Fadel asserted, there is nothing to fear from the competition. "With the expected increase in commercial traffic all over the world, we may look forward to a similar increase in maritime transport."
The Suez Canal Authority did not raise transit fees during 1999. In fact, it continued to offer rebates in order to remain competitive. According to Fadel, the Authority will continue to offer rebates on a case-by-case basis, as it has done in the past. General cargo ships carrying containers on deck are treated as containers. Dues for gas carriers that also transport other cargo but are in ballast are calculated on the basis of the last shipment they transported through the Canal. If the last cargo was liquefied natural gas, the ship is treated as a LNG carrier and is entitled to a 35 per cent rebate. This system resulted in additional revenue estimated at $182 million, in the past year.
The equipment used by the Authority has also been upgraded. The seven dredges that produced 2,170 cubic metres of earth per hour in 1956 have been increased to 10, producing 13,130 cubic metres of earth per hour. The number of tug-boats increased from nine to 34, two of which are the largest in the region.
"The Authority at present contributes to building marine units and repairing tourist ships and Nile cruisers. In addition, for the first time, we are helping build a ship arsenal on the Nile's banks in Qena," Fadel said.