Lessons of the Ever Given: what can we take from this trade hiccup?

Illustration by Paulina Maziarska.

At the time of writing, the container ship Ever Given has finally been refloated. The ship spent six days beached across the Suez Canal when high winds and a sandstorm blew it off course.

400 meters long, 59 meters wide with a gross tonnage of 219,079, the Ever Given is one of the largest container ships in the world. The effort to free the ship required the shifting of around 30,000 cubic meters of sand by dredging vessels and diggers, and at least a dozen tugboats.

Since running aground, the Ever Given has been a clot in the artery of global trade. Wedged diagonally across the whole width of its section of the Suez Canal, it had effectively blocked all traffic on the shortest sea route between Asia and Europe. The alternative ocean route involves circumnavigating around the entire continent of Africa, a diversion that adds 3,500 nautical miles and around eight days to the voyage.

An estimated 12% percent of all global trade passes through the Suez Canal, equating to over 18,500 vessels per year or over 50 per day.

Although vessels will now be able to resume their voyages along the canal, it will take days for the backlog to clear. A total of 367 vessels are reported to be waiting further south in the canal to resume their voyages with an estimated £7 billion of goods having been held up each day that the canal was blocked.

The plight of the Ever Given could have been brushed over as a trade hiccup: followed only by those it immediately affected but ultimately ignored by everyone else. It has instead fascinated the world both on- and offline. Photos of the stranded ship have graced the front pages of newspapers all over the world. On social media, the incident has been posted about hundreds of thousands of times.

Why this incident was able to capture the attention of the world has much to do with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The past year and a half have been a reminder of the interconnectedness of the modern world is. For one, it has been a the story of how a novel virus was able to infect and kill in every corner of the globe in just a few months after it had first been reported, revealing the extent of travel networks. For another, our response to that virus has been greatly dependent on the actions of agents all over the world, especially with regards to trade.

In the early stages of the crisis, the importance and complexity of international supply chains were put into harsh focus, as demand for PPE soared across the world. Shortages led governments to stockpile and hastily buy up as much as they could, often outbidding other governments in the process.

Once these initial scuffles ended, they were quickly replaced by reports covering the difficulties of supplying the number of vaccine doses necessary to immunise the world. Disputes over vaccine production and distribution have been particularly fierce, one need only look at the ongoing saga between AstraZeneca and the European Union, and it is easy to see why.

Most modern items are not produced by a single process or in a single place. A simple 100% cotton T-shirt will have likely generated more travel miles than the average person by the time it arrives at the shop: growing, yarning, dying, and making the garment are all likely done in separate countries.

A vaccination,  infinitely more complex, has required significant supply chain modification in order to manufacture the billions of doses needed. From specialist minerals to sterilised glass vials to dry-ice needed to keep the vaccine cool while being transported, the supply chains necessary to make this possible will span every inhabited continent and thousands of people.

In all, the pandemic and the response required to overcome it have revealed the vast complexities of global trade. In this context, it is no surprise that the world seized on an event that symbolised this very system’s fragility: how a single ship beached in the wrong place was able to cause so much disruption.

At the same time, though, the Ever Given is hardly a normal ship. Built three years ago, it is one of only 77 vessels that have the capacity to hold over 20,000 shipping containers. Motivated by the high oil prices of the early 2000s and buoyed on in the low-interest-rate environment following the financial crash, such large ships were advantageous economically, transporting more freight for an insignificant extra cost. However, the increasing size of ships, the biggest of which has quadrupled in size in the past 25 years, has run up against the size of the waterways themselves.

The Ever Given is too big for the Panama Canal, which connects the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean, even after a $5 billion expansion. Half of the world’s ports do not have the infrastructure to deal with ships of its size, according to Rory Hopcraft, a member of Plymouth University’s maritime cyber threat research group.

The Suez Canal itself has been in the process of expanding to accommodate this new class of ships. In 2015, the northern end was embiggened and a second waterway was added, enabling ships to travel in both directions simultaneously. But the project had not yet reached the southern part of the waterway, where the Ever Given ran aground.

This class of ships is only growing: 56 ships with capacities even larger than the Ever Given having been ordered.

While bigger boats might mean cheaper freight, the Ever Given has also demonstrated how big the fallout can be when it goes wrong. Much like the pandemic, the Ever Given is a lesson in the challenges of the human story. When we expand, we cannot expand independently of the structures that support us or else we risk the, increasingly severe, repercussions.

For the Ever Given, it was failing to ensure that the waterways and ports can cope with ever bigger ships required to feed, clothe, and provide consumer goods to an ever-growing population.

For COVID, it was failing to ensure that national healthcare systems and other vital infrastructure were prepared to cope with a pandemic. As the population increases, pandemic-causing viruses are only more likely to occur due to the scale of disruption of the Earth’s natural systems required to sustain billions.

But, ultimately, just as vaccines for COVID-19 were developed in record time, the Ever Given was refloated weeks before the worst estimate. The development of humanity is unprecedented, but equally unprecedented is our capacity to problem solve, even if those problems are often of our own creation.