The Egyptian government's plan to massively enlarge and deepen the Suez Canal has been met with widespread support domestically — but it has raised the ire and concern of scientists, who say the $8.5 billion project could have devastating ecological consequences in the Mediterranean Sea.
The centerpiece of the plan includes a $4 billion, 45-mile channel that will be dredged and excavated alongside the existing 101-mile canal, facilitating two-way traffic at points where the waterway is too narrow. Work on the military-supervised project began August 5.
The Canal has been enlarged several times in the last century, most recently in 2010, but never so radically. The current plans have existed for decades, and sat on the desk of both former presidents Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi, who was reportedly considering them when he was deposed by the military in July.
The canal, which allows ships from Asia to bypass a route around the Cape of Good Hope, has long been a point of pride among Egyptians. News of its expansion has set off a nationalist mood among supporters.
Egyptian Central Bank officials say they raised the $8.5 billion required for the big dig entirely through local investors in just 11 days — and that 82 percent of Canal bonds were purchased by individual Egyptians, not firms or investment houses. Pro-government papers have compared President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to Gamal Nasser, Egypt's revered former leader who nationalized the canal in 1956. In announcing the expansion, Sisi set the ambitious goal of finishing work by next year.
"There is certainly a lot of rhetoric and political optics that are going on here," Samer S. Shehata, Professor of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and expert on Egyptian affairs, told VICE News. "This has captured the attention of many millions of Egyptians."
"Like so many things in Egypt, its success is going to be determined by transparency, efficiency and if there are public records," Shehata said.
Planners say the expansion will cut wait times for ships seeking to cross the canal from 11 hours to only three. Quicker and expanded access between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean means the number of ships that can pass through the channel on a daily basis would roughly double from the current maximum of 49 to 97 vessels. The government predicts revenues from increased shipping could rise from $5.1 billion today to $13.2 billion by 2023.
Scientists, however, are raising alarm bells about further linking the two biologically distinct bodies of water. Last month, in a paper titled "Double Trouble" published in the journal Biological Invasions, a group of marine biologists called the Egyptian plan "ominous."
"There are more than 100 years of scientific studies of the invasions of the Mediterranean by species from the Red Sea — it's not a recent phenomenon," Bella S. Galil, senior scientist at Israel's National Institute of Oceanography and one of the paper's authors, told VICE News.
Even prior to the canal's opening, Galil noted, transcontinental trade brought foreign species like crabs along with their cargo. But it wasn't until the construction of the original canal — finished in 1869, after the deaths of thousands of workers — that the invasion truly started.
'Any environment has some reserve, but we know the reserve in the Eastern Mediterranean is clearly quite shook up. We don't know which species will enter or when, but we know they are coming.'
Galil and her colleagues estimate that about half of the almost 700 hundred non-native species living in the Mediterranean today have entered the Sea through the Suez Canal. The passage, wrote the scientists, "is one of the most potent mechanisms and corridors for invasions by marine species known in the world."
The impact of invasive species has been acutely felt in the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly off the coasts of Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, where nearly all non-native species arrived via the canal. In a 2012 study, Galil found that three times as many alien species — 338 — were found in the sea off Israel than the entire Mediterranean coast of mainland France and Spain.
Poisonous puffer fish have been found as far from the Suez as Italy. Venomous swarms of jellyfish known as Rhopilema nomadica have spread from Tunisia to the Levant, where they've stung beachgoers, mucked up fishing nets, and, in 2011, even clogged an Israeli power plant's seawater cooling system.
In the Red Sea, the jellyfish cause few problems because they have natural predators to keep their populations in check. In the Mediterranean, where they prey on native fish and crustacean larvae — wreaking havoc on the food chain from the bottom up —little or nothing stands in the way of their proliferation. "It's a Zero-Sum game," Galil said.
Due to climate change, scientists expect the Mediterranean to warm in the coming decades, making it even more hospitable for species originally from the Red Sea and the adjacent Indian Ocean. The UN also predicts that increased acidification of seas due to pollution will hurt coral reef generation around the world, killing off fish and other species, and leaving more room for jellyfish. Depleted stocks of native marine life could devastate the Mediterranean fishing industry.
"We don't really know ahead of time what will be the last straw," Galil said. "Any environment has some reserve, but we know the reserve in the Eastern Mediterranean is clearly quite shook up. We don't know which species will enter or when, but we know they are coming."
Egyptian observers are conflicted about the canal, but not because of its environmental impact.
The project not only expands the canal, but also will see the building up of some 29,000 square miles around it. Egypt hopes to turn the land into an international hub for logistics, capturing shipping services from giant ports like Singapore. The government predicts the project itself will create 1 million jobs.
Though experts believe there's a good chance the canal project could benefit the Egyptian economy in the long run, it could also validate Sisi's presidency. Elections in May, which saw the former general win nearly 97 percent of the vote, were widely viewed as rigged. Sisi's presidency has been marred by severe human rights violations, including violent clampdowns on Islamists and the jailing of members of the press.
"Sisi wants to find a legitimate path for this presidency, and to not appear as a military ruler, which he is," Mohamed Elmenshawy, resident fellow at the Middle East Institute and columnist for the Egyptian paper Al Shorouk News, told VICE News.
Elmenshawy said the Egyptian business community is wary of the incremental militarization of the economy.
"A lot of business people are opposing [the canal] because they believe they can't compete with the military, who doesn't have to pay tax or tariffs and has low labor costs."
Despite differences over the project, its ecological impact is little discussed in a country where the official unemployment rate is over 13 percent and a quarter of the country lives in poverty.
For many Egyptians, the bonds, which pay 12 percent interest — a rate 3 percent higher than the average bank account — were simply a sound investment.
"Talking about the environment for projects is luxurious in Egypt," Elmenshawy said.
The expansion comes in the midst of a global maritime arms race. An ambitious plan by the Panamanian government aims to double the capacity of the Panama Canal is set to be completed in 2016. Nicaragua has also announced a competing channel, financed by China, and will begin construction later this year. Around the world, cities are deepening their ports to accommodate a massive new class of container ships that can stretch up to four football fields in length.
Galil says she understands the economic reality in Egypt, but says the government needs to take steps to carry out a proper environmental impact assessment. She points to the Panama Canal, where engineers created a system of doors at both Pacific and Atlantic entrances where invasive species could be prevented from entering its locks.
"Scientists are not against the reality that there is a globalization of trade," Galil said. "What we are asking for is completely acceptable."
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford
Photo by US Navy/Billy Ho via Flickr