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The Marine Electronic Highway: A new concept for an old problem

Despite a long gestation, at the end of this year, if all goes well, the very first Marine Electronic Highway (MEH) trial will launch. It will cover the Singapore and Malacca Straits and heralds a new future for vessel traffic management in congested waters. It builds on experience gained in port and harbour management together with offshore schemes such as the Channel Navigation Information Service at Dover. It is a large project coming with an initial tab close to US$16 million adding crucial links to millions spent earlier on infrastructure.

In maritime terms this is a project with a difference as it covers straits used for international navigation where freedom of navigation is enshrined in treaties such as UNCLOS (Law of the Sea Convention). It also links with a full range of electronic bridge equipment (including ECDIS, not yet a carriage requirement under SOLAS) and interfaces to the latest onshore technology (see Table 1).

It is a scheme involving three littoral states where total crossborder imperatives, understandings and involvement has proven difficult to coordinate.

Hazards to the environment

The choice of the Straits to demonstrate a MEH originates from a number of important sources. Paramount is an environmental concern with ecosystems such as corals and mangroves at risk from marine pollution. Figure 2 shows the aftermath of a collision between the Evoikos and the Orapin Global in 1999 with the former (photographed) carrying a full cargo of heavy fuel oil. The accident occurred off Singapore with close to 30,000 tonnes spilling instantly. Large volumes of glutinous fuel oil proceeded to contaminate nearby beaches and facilities.

Today studies show an increase of shipping activities and rapid development and industrialisation in coastal areas. Together these threaten the environment.

At approximately 500 miles in length the Malacca and Singapore straits comprise the longest strait in the world for international shipping. Taken together the Straits provide the main seaway connecting the northern Indian Ocean with the China Sea and are the shortest passage for most routes to and from the Far East. The waterway runs through the territorial seas of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. The shorter, but navigationally more tortuous, Singapore strait joins at the southern end of the Malacca strait for connection to the China Sea. Navigable widths at channel choke points are critical – measured in meters rather than miles. For eastbound shipping there is a through route of 23 meters water depth but with 31/2 meters under-keel clearance (UKC) ships’ drafts top at 191/2 metres, unless tidal staging applies, encouraging some of the world’s largest ships to make the transit.

Alternative routes

Although the Straits are a shallow maze of narrow channels and fraught with irregular tides and shifting seabeds, they are the preferred international route for the majority. This is due partly to the presence of major services and active ports such as Singapore, compared to other routes.

John Cumming, Chairman, Marine Transport & Navigation Group, Royal Institute of Navigation, London, UK
Edition: Edition 28

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