Worldwide there are countless waterways and canals connecting oceans and seas. These are partly artificial canals created by man, but also straits, which are determined by the geography of the region. Their main purpose is, historically and still today, the international trade and transport of goods. Some of these waterways are of particular strategic importance because of their location or narrowness.
For this reason they have been subject to international law for centuries. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was last signed in 1982 and finally ratified in 1994, guaranteeing safe passage for ships of all nations.
Here are a few facts about the seven most important waterways in the world that you may not know about.
With a length of 82 kilometres, the Panama Canal is the longest artificial canal in the world. In Central America, it cuts through the land belt of Panama and thus connects the Atlantic with the Pacific, making the much longer and more dangerous stretch around Cape Horn or through the Strait of Magellan obsolete for shipping. About 5% of the world's ocean freight traffic passes through the Panama Canal. The Panama Canal has the greatest importance for goods transports between the west and east coasts of the USA, but also for trade between Asia and the US east coast. 68% of all goods handled in the USA are transported through the Panama Canal. This figure is 23% for China and 16% for Japan.
Strait of Gibraltar
This strait is bordered to the north by the Spanish mainland and the British Crown Colony of Gibraltar, and to the south by Morocco and the Spanish exclave of Ceuta. It connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea and is therefore one of the busiest waterways in the world, frequented daily by around 300 ships. The road has a length of about 60 kilometres and is only 14 kilometres wide at its narrowest point and 44 kilometres wide at its widest point. The Mediterranean's level, which is almost one and a half metres lower, ensures a constant eastward water flow at the surface. In combination with the mostly westerly winds, which increase even more in the strait, this made the Strait of Gibraltar a difficult waterway to navigate for a long time.
Strait of Magellan
At the extreme tip of South America, the Strait of Magellan winds its way through islands with numerous side arms over a length of 570 kilometres, separating the South American mainland from Tierra del Fuego and other islands. At the same time it connects the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean. It has been part of Chilean territory since 1881. Although the Panama Canal, which since 1914 has made it unnecessary to circumnavigate Cape Horn, has taken its place, the Strait of Magellan is still used by many ships and offers direct access for trade transports across the Atlantic to Europe, especially to Chile, which otherwise only has a Pacific coast. The geological conditions offer the passing ships safe passage in comparison to the dangerous route around Cape Horn; a further contribution is made by the 41 lighthouses installed in the Strait of Magellan.
Strait of Malacca
Located in the Indian Ocean between Malaysia in the north and Indonesia in the south, the Strait of Malacca is of immense importance not only for the regional transport of goods, but also for world trade. Over a length of around 800 kilometres and a width of between 50 and 300 kilometres, it is traversed daily by approximately 2000 ships, which carry 20-25% of the global sea freight volume. In addition, it is an important bottleneck for the faster transport of oil and gas from the Gulf region to China, Japan and South Korea. In the past, the Strait of Malacca was the scene of repeated pirate attacks due to the high volume of shipping. For some years now, however, these incidents seem to be heading towards zero.
Bosporus, Sea of Marmara and Dardanelles
The passage between the Aegean Sea and the Black Sea always leads via this route. At the same time these straits separate Europe from Asia. For the countries bordering the Black Sea, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania, they represent access to the Mediterranean Sea and thus to international maritime trade. Meanwhile, in addition to agricultural products and industrial goods, oil and natural gas are increasingly being transported. The passage through the Bosporus, which is surrounded by the city of Istanbul and at its narrowest point is only 700m wide, is organized by an extensive set of rules, the Bosporus Passage Procedure.
A good tenth of global maritime trade runs through the Suez Canal, which connects West and East, Europe, Asia and parts of Africa. Since 1869 it has connected the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea and since then has shortened the passage enormously: instead of 11,755 nautical miles (21,770.26 km) on the journey around Africa, only 8,281 nautical miles (15,336.41 km) are now covered between Rotterdam and Singapore through the Suez Canal. On the whole length of 193 km the Suez Canal is lock-free. The Convention of Constantinople, which has been in force since 1888 until today, states that all ships of all states, i.e. merchant ships as well as warships, are allowed to pass through, without restriction in times of peace and war.
Strait of Hormus
The Strait of Hormus is of outstanding importance in global trade and politics, especially for the transport of crude oil and natural gas. It connects the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea and, finally, the Indian Ocean, which means that the sea route to Asia is free. Every day, 17.4 million barrels of oil pass through the Strait of Hormus on tankers, 85% of which go to Asia, mainly China, Japan, South Korea and India. The fairways are only 3 km wide in each direction, which makes strict coordination of shipping necessary. This is regulated according to the regulations of the traffic separation scheme (TSS).