Egypt modernizing Suez Canal in bid to capture more big-tanker traffic

Since Nov. 17, 1869, When Khedive Ismail sailed in a flotilla from Port Said, and French Empress Eugenie had her firs camel ride to commemorate the occasion, the 108-mile long Suez Canal has been Egypt's pride.

It is the country's main hard-currency earner and a maritime pathway of tremendous strategic value. Earlier this month the 100,000th ship passed through the waterway since it reopened in 1975.

Meanwile, the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) continues in its bid to capture the oil traffic it serviced before the 1967 war with Israel.

The first of two stages in the development program designed to widen, deepen, and modernize the canal is due to be completed in November, at a a cost of $1.2 billion. The aim of the first phase is to accommodate the evolution in the design of ships and oil tankers that occurred following the closure of the canal in the 1967 war.

Before the war, oil traffic represented 75 percent of the canal's revenue. After the canal closure, the size of tankers jumped from 70,000 tons to 110,000 and to 210,000 deadweight tons to economize on the trip around the Cape of Good Hope. After reopening, teh canal got only 25 percent of the world tanker cargo as opposed to the 74 percent befor the war.

After the first stage is completed, the SCA estimates that tanker tonnage through the canal will increase to 50 percent of world figures.

More than 50 dredgers and 2,000 men have been at work for four years to widen and deepen the waterway. At the end of the first phase the draft of water for ships will be increased from 38 to 53 feet, and the wet cross section will be widened to 3,600 square meters. The famous Israeli Bar-Lev line has been removed, and new revetments protecting the east bank of the canal have been built.

New by-passes will provide faster, safer passage through the canal for loaded supertankers. Vessels of up to 150,000 tons fully loaded and tankers of up to 370,000 tons in ballast will be able to transit the canal. This is an increase from the maximum of 60,000 tons for fully loaded ships in 1967.

The development program also has installed a new computer-operated navigational control system to monitor the progress of ships though the canal. Foreign concessionary loans financed 55 percent of the first phase, while the remainder was drawn from local currency. Canal revenues in 1981 are expected to top $1 billion.

Starting in November, canal tolls, which have stayed the same since 1975, will increase. Smaller ships, which have enjoyed big savings by using the waterway, will be paying the larger share of the increase.

According Mashour Ahmed Mashour, chairman of the Suez Canal Authority, there are several choices during the second phase.

The second stage would deepen the canal further to accommodate very large crude carriers of up to 270,000 tons fully loaded. A feasibility study, conducted by the japanese on the second phase, will cost $700 million, Mr. Mashour says. The SCA has the option of using the international dredging equipment now on site, or of continuing to dredge the canal at a slower rate with the SCA's own equipment.

But according to Capt. M. H. Hamouda, chief pilot in the Suez Canal, "The real question is: is it feasible to spend $1 billion for a limited number of ships? With the increase in the price of oil supertankers are not economical any more."

There now is a world tanker surplus, and those ship prefer to go at slow speeds around the Cape of Good Hope rather than pay canal tolls. But by the mid-1980s, a balance between supply and demand in the world tanker fleet should be reached. But, says Mr. Mashour, "We want the oil."

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