The paralyzing effect of the stricken Ever Given container ship on global traffic became clear on Sunday as nearby Syria, already scarred by years of war, imposed fuel rationing to safeguard dwindling oil supplies.
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 in loosening the bow and 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 waiting in the area has grown to 327, according to Leth Agencies, the canal’s service provider. Of those, 151 are on the canal, 42 are at the midway point of Great Bitter Lake, and 134 are at Port Said, which connects to the Mediterranean Sea.
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.”
The head of the Suez Canal Authority (SCA), Osama Rabie, said in a live phone interview Sunday with Egypt’s Extra News television channel that the Ever Given had shifted slightly on Saturday.
“We managed to move the ship from the bow side by 4 meters, and likewise from the stern side,” Rabie said. “The dredging operations led to the ship moving, albeit a slight move, but it is a positive development, because in the first two days the ship was not moving at all.”
Egypt is also making preparations so that if a decision to unload containers from the ship is made — currently the third-case scenario — there would be no further delay, Rabie said.
But, the SCA chairman added, to implement this plan would require assistance from the international community. One challenge is that specific equipment is required, including a crane high enough to remove containers from the ship’s bow, which Egypt does not have.
Speaking at a news conference Saturday, Rabie said: “Plan C is the difficult one, the unloading operation. It’s difficult because there are 18,000 containers, and there is no crane that can access the containers.”
He said the United States, China, Greece and the United Arab Emirates had offered help.
In his phone interview Sunday, Rabie added that Egypt’s President Abdul Fattah El-Sisi was checking in on a daily basis and advising on matters, including the decision to obtain the unloading equipment required in case they had to pursue that course of action.
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.
Speaking Saturday, Rabie said the reasons behind the accident remained 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.