Too big to sail? Suez incident latest evidence of risks of megaships

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The container ship 'Ever Given' is moving in the Suez Canal, Egypt, 29 March 2021. The Suez Canal Authority on 29 March said that traffic is to resume after the large container ship 'Ever Given' was refloated. The Ever Given ran aground in the Suez Canal on 23 March, causing a huge traffic backlog of ships. [EPA-EFE/KHALED ELFIQI]

The grounding of the Ever Given has caught the public’s attention. But it’s just the latest example of an accident in an industry where losing control can have disastrous consequences, writes Albert de Hoop.

Albert de Hoop is the former mayor of Ameland, the Netherlands.

With world trade dependent on the global shipping industry, the blocked Suez Canal is estimated to have had an economic cost of $9bn per day. 

However, while the Ever Given got stuck, it at least managed to keep hold of its cargo. Because while we count the financial impact of this incident, it is all too often an enormous environmental cost that is paid when something goes wrong on a megaship. 

In 2019, 342 containers crashed into the North Sea after falling off of the MSC Zoe. With a capacity of just under 20,000 containers, the Zoe is a similar size to the Ever Given. 297 of the Zoe’s lost containers went into the sea off the coast of Ameland, a Dutch Island where I was mayor for 12 years before the Zoe incident.

The lost cargo included all kinds of consumer goods and some toxic substances. Two years later, it’s estimated that more than 800,000kg of waste is still left on the seabed. As a result, last year, Dutch fishermen broke all their records for waste returned to port as part of a voluntary ‘Fishing for Litter’ scheme, collecting more than 500 tonnes of waste in their nets.

The MSC Zoe incident had a terrible impact on the Wadden Sea environment, and the coastal communities who depend on healthy seas to support their livelihoods. Our beaches were strewn with rubbish, and precious ecosystems threatened. 

While this disaster was close to home, it was by no means the last time that a giant container ship spilled a huge amount of its cargo. In fact, since November last year, a eye-watering 2,980 truck-sized containers have fallen from container ships around the world. That’s a record figure and double the average number lost at sea in each year between 2008 and 2019. 

The global shipping industry operates under intense pressure. Stretched crews, ageing materials and tight deadlines create a toxic mix of influences that will continue to create dangerous situations at sea and along our coasts. Bigger ships make bigger losses possible. Shipping companies may blame adverse meteorological conditions when accidents happen, but bad weather is a constant threat at sea and steps can and should be taken to prevent these incidents. 

Following the MSC Zoe, a comprehensive investigation involving the Dutch Safety Board made international recommendations to reduce the risk of future container losses. These included reviewing requirements for: the lashing systems that hold containers in place, the way that containers are loaded to ensure stability, the obligation to carry instruments that monitor roll motions and acceleration, and, the technical possibilities for detecting container loss. 

With even larger container ships entering service, it is more important than ever that the recommendations of this report are put into practice. 

Furthermore, as insurance for coastal communities when accidents do happen, European governments and the EU must work towards a Convention on Liability and Compensation for Damage in Connection with the Carriage of Non-Toxic Substances. This should including strict liability on ship owners for pollution from their vessels, compulsory insurance for all vessels and a reserve fund to cover any shortfalls in compensation – as was recently called for by the North Sea Commission and KIMO International

Let us hope that the attention raised by the grounding of the Ever Given – and its enormous economic impact – will finally spur our governments into action. Without stronger laws and regulation, it is just a matter of time until we witness another megaship disaster, perhaps with thousands of tonnes of waste washing up on a beach near you. 

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