The Suez Canal has a contentious history and has been blocked and closed several times since opening

  • Since its opening, there have been five closures to the Suez Canal.
  • One of these incidents forced the Suez Canal — one of the world’s most vital shipping routes — to shut down for years.
  • Experts said the process to dislodge the Ever Given — the most recent blockage along the canal — might take up to a few weeks. 
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The blockage of the Suez Canal by a massive container ship called the Ever Given has become a worldwide shipping crisis. But — so far — it pales in comparison to other events that brought the canal to a halt in the past.

Since Tuesday, the Panamanian-flagged Ever Given has been lodged against the width of the canal, causing a massive traffic jam at one the world’s most vital shipping routes. 

The ship, nearly 200 feet wide and 1,300 feet long, easily took up the width of the channel. It’s said to be bigger than the Empire State Building.

The Suez Canal is an Egyptian waterway connecting Europe and Asia, responsible for facilitating about 12% of all global trade. Supply-chain experts are now warning that shoppers are likely to see a shortage of items in stores because the ship has been lodged in place for days, blocking hundreds of other vessels from continuing their journeys.

“Basically anything you see in the stores” like coffee and toilet paper will be in short supply, Lars Jensen, an independent container-shipping expert based in Denmark, told NBC News.

The crisis is costing $400 million per hour in delayed goods, Lloyd’s List estimated.

Egyptian authorities have attempted to remove the vessel and shift it parallel to the canal to clear up the blockage. But all attempts have so far failed, and experts predict it might take weeks to dislodge and clear the waterway. 

“We might have to work with a combination of reducing the weight by removing containers, oil, and water from the ship; tugboats; and dredging of sand,” Peter Berdowski, CEO of Dutch engineering company Boskalis, said earlier this week. 

“We can’t exclude it might take weeks, depending on the situation,” he said. 

As bad as it seems, though, the Suez Canal has seen worse blockages — some of which have lasted for years.

According to the Suez Canal Authority, which maintains and operates the waterway, the Suez Canal has closed five times since it opened for navigation in 1869.

The first time was in 1956 after a British-French-Israeli invasion. 

On July 26, 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal, a decision that mounted backlash from Britain and France. At this time, there was tension between the three countries, according to a history page published on the State Department website.

Egypt wanted to nationalize the canal in an effort to go against European colonial domination. President Nasser  said he was angered by “the imperialists who have mortgaged our future.” Britain and France, on the other hand, were suspicious of Egypt’s growing political influence.

In an attempt at a solution, the United States proposed the creation of an international consortium that would leave operating powers in the hands of 18 maritime nations, the history page says. All parties declined to support this idea. 

Britain and France collaborated with Israel in secret military consultations to take control of the canal from Egypt by force. Israeli forces then attacked an Egyptian peninsula and advanced 10 miles toward the Suez Canal, and British and French troops eventually arrived at the scene as well. 

That tension along the waterway — dubbed the Suez Crisis  — led to the canal’s closure for months. 

Next, Egypt enters a war with Israel and the canal is blocked for eight years.

In June 1967, the canal turned into a battleground between Israel and Egypt as the two nations renewed conflicts.

At this point, Israeli forces continued to occupy one Egyptian peninsula. Israel refused to withdraw its forces from the peninsula, despite urges from the United States to do so, according to another State Department page. 

Israel maintained control of the Suez Canal’s east bank. Egypt, attempting to regain control, formed a blockade and shut down the waterway. 

It wasn’t until June 1975, after Egypt and Israel signed a diplomatic agreement, that the canal reopened for trade. 

After that, there were no major disturbances along the waterway until 2004.

Another ship stopped the flow of traffic through the canal decades later, in 2004. The Tropic Brilliance, an oil tanker, got lodged in the waterway.

For three days, the ship was stuck and rescuers could not dislodge it. 

The ship had to be refloated, a process that involves digging out and removing sand from alongside and under the boat to increase up the presence of water around the vessel and get it to move. 

The Suez Canal Authority is currently working to refloat the Ever Given. 

“We got to dig deep to get it loose and then try to refloat the ship again. Nothing else will happen until it’s done,” one person involved with the effort told the Wall Street Journal. 

In 2006, another boat got lodged in the waterway.

Sandstorms and high winds caused the Okal King Dor, a 93,000-ton cargo ship, to drift off at a wrong angle, leading to a temporary blockage in the canal. 

Tugboats, however, were able to dislodge the cargo ship within eight hours. At the time, about 8% of all global trade went through the Suez Canal, considerably lower than the volume today. 

Later, the 120-mile canal was disturbed in 2017 by another ship: the OOCL Japan. 

The steering gear on the container ship malfunctioned, according to the Vessel Tracker, a website that tracks marine traffic and ships in real time. The malfunction caused the ship to veer perpendicular to its course and block the canal. 

Within a few hours, tugboats were able to push it free. 

Against the backdrop of these five incidents, Ever Given so far falls in the middle in terms of the length of time a blockage along the canal has ensued. 

But it’s not yet clear what efforts will be necessary to get the ship free and resume traffic through the waterway. 

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