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The Strategic Importance of Alternate Container Transit Routes

Suez Canal
Suez Canal

By Harry Valentine 2018-03-31 19:55:34

Emerging future weather patterns have the potential to affect northern shipping between the Bering Strait and Atlantic Ocean as well as future rainfall in Central America, where the viable operation of the Panama Canal depends on reliable rainfall in a nation that depends heavily on hydroelectric power. 

The combination of weather conditions, such as prolonged periods of drought, and political upheavals in the Middle East and Central America could greatly increase the strategic importance of alternative container transportation routes to assure delivery. Alternate routes would include both railway transportation as well as trans-Arctic navigation.

Americas' Weather Cycles

California has just emerged from a nine-year drought during which, and for the first time, water levels dropped to critically low levels in the Hoover Dam. Centuries earlier, a prolonged El Nino weather event impacted Pacific coastal regions across Central and South America and led to the collapse of the Mayan Empire. Severe prolonged drought in the watershed regions that serve Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Cape Town, South Africa, have severely reduced the supply of potable water. A combination of factors that include cyclical weather patterns might be causing these droughts.

Future weather patterns could impact Central America and the watershed region that sustains the operation of the Panama Canal as well as hydroelectric power generation. While there could be scope to install high capacity water pumps at navigation locks to pump water to higher elevation to save water and sustain canal operation, there might not be sufficient available electric power to undertake such a task. Keeping the Panama Canal operational during a severe and prolonged drought could raise ship transit costs to levels that could make alternative container transit routes more attractive.

Middle Eastern Events

During 1967, the six-day war in the Middle East resulted in the temporary closure of the Suez Canal, forcing maritime traffic sailing between the near East and Europe as well as America to divert via Cape Town, South Africa. There are two narrow navigation channels between the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea; the Suez Canal and the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb bordered by Yemen, Djibouti and Eritrea. There is volcanic activity in the region near the strait where Somali-based piracy is problematic. Either politically-related events or seismic events could suspend ship traffic through the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb.

Political upheavals at either the north or south end of the Red Sea could temporarily suspend ship traffic sailing between the Mediterranean Sea and Gulf of Aden. Depending on location of Asian ports of origin and northern hemisphere climate conditions, some ships may sail via Cape Town to European or east coast North American destinations. Such a suspension would also place high relevance on a railway connection between Western Europe and a port on the Indian Ocean or Persian Gulf, except that political upheavals in Syria and Iraq prevent using the railway line between Turkey and Southern Iraq. 

While newly developed Saudi Arabian railway lines connect to ports on the Persian Gulf, there is presently an absence of a southern railway connection between The Gulf and a Mediterranean port. Due to regional politics, that situation would likely remain unchanged for many years into the future. 

Alternative Routes for India

While the proposed railway link between southeastern Iran and Tehran offers a railway link that connects to Istanbul, international politics would influence the development and future operation of such a link. Freight forwarders based in China have developed several alternative routes by which to carry containers to and from Europe, with several thousand trains having already undertaken the journey. Sending containers that originate from India, by train across Iran to Europe would be quicker than and possibly cost competitive with sailing the containers via Cape Town. 

If the Panama Canal were fully operational, container ships from India heading to American northeastern destinations could sail either via Cape Town or via the Panama Canal, while sailing across the Pacific Ocean to North American west coast destinations.

Alternative Routes for China

China has not only initiated several thousand trains carrying containers along several slightly different routes to and from Europe, it has also committed to sailing smaller size container ships of up to 3,000 TEUs via the Russian side of the Arctic, from Far East ports of origin to Western European destination ports. The combination of the warm Gulf Stream Ocean Current that flows into the Russian side of the Arctic along with shallower depth than the Canadian side provides some summer-time ship transit passage. 

A combination of factors could sufficiently melt the Canadian Arctic channels to transit large vessels. The possible future option of sailing the largest container ships afloat via Canadian Arctic channels between Eastern China and Western Europe, also between Eastern China and the American east coast would be more attractive than sailing the same size of ships via Cape Town or smaller ships via the Panama Canal, both of which would involve longer sailing distances than sailing directly between the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. Future weather patterns and factors that influence those patterns would determine the future availability of Canadian Arctic channels to transit large container ships.

Conclusions

While political unrest would be the likely cause of suspending directly ship traffic between the eastern Mediterranean Sea and Gulf of Aden, weather conditions in Central America would be the likely cause of restricting ship transit operations through the Panama Canal. The combination of railway lines and future trans-Arctic navigation would assist the freight forwarding industry to deliver containers to their destinations.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.