Is the Spain – Morocco tunnel project just a pipe dream, costing millions?

by Lorraine Williamson
Underwater tunnel

MADRID – Spain has already spent millions on the mega-project of the tunnel between Morocco and southern Spain at the Strait of Gibraltar. Yet after 42 years of study, not a single stone has been laid. 

Now and then news about the street tunnel comes up again and then the project disappears from the spotlight. The dream of connecting Europe and Africa by a fixed underwater connection is increasingly looking like a castle in the sky. Four months ago, there was another high-level meeting between the Spanish and Moroccan governments in Rabat to revive the project. 

Also read: Spain and Morocco restart tunnel project in Strait of Gibraltar 

The public company Secegsa has been studying the enormous technical challenge for 42 years. Numerous proposals were put on paper, but all of them got bogged down in obscurity. However, in 1979, Morocco and Spain signed a joint declaration of intent for the first time. Then, on November 8 of the same year, a scientific and technical cooperation agreement was signed, and on October 24, 1980, the Spanish-Moroccan Joint Committee agreed to create two public companies, SNED in Morocco and Secegsa and Cetmo in Spain, with a seed capital of 300,505 pesetas. 

This Joint Committee, composed of ten members (5 Spaniards and 5 Moroccans), meets at least once every six months, in Spain or Morocco. The two companies keep each other informed of the progress and results of the investigations. 

El Público writes that since then 43 years have passed and not a single stone has been laid for the intended permanent connection between Africa and Europe. During all this time, Secegsa has occasionally engaged in activities aimed at studying the complex physical conditions of the Strait, technological developments, trade flows and the financial viability of this immense challenge. 

Complex orographic and hydraulic features 

The research into physical conditions yielded the most results during the 48 campaigns between 1981 and 2014. Among other things, 10 maritime drillings were carried out. These confirmed the complex orographic and hydraulic features of the unstable sea area, characterised by the convergence of the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. 

A significant excess of cash 

Furthermore, a report by the Court of Auditors shows that during the period 1997-2001 “little progress was made in achieving the objectives for which the company was set up”. Operating costs at the time were estimated at 167.5 million pesetas. Thus, the annual grants led to a “significant excess” of cash. In the period 1981-2001, personnel costs totalled 1,842 million pesetas, with a total contribution from the state of 5,810 million pesetas. 

Suspicion about the lack of tangible progress 

Four years later, in 2005, a socialist senator from Cádiz expressed her “concern” about the halting of a project that had raised “great expectations for the future” in the region of Cádiz. She added: “There has been practically no progress in the design process or the implementation of the project.” The tunnel’s lack of tangible progress began to arouse suspicion even among senators of the same political affiliation. 

Cogesa Expats

€181,500 for two top management positions 

In 2017, Secegsa had ten employees, with a total wage cost of €384,000 per year. Almost half of this, €181,500, was spent on the two top management positions. In that year, the average salary was around €52,000, according to data provided by Secegsa. Furthermore, the subsidies received from the state in the past seven years amount to €1.3 million. 

Undersea tunnel most viable option 

It is now clear that the most feasible technical solution is the construction of an undersea tunnel. The option of a bridge or a large underwater transit channel on the seabed seems out of the question. 

Consequently, the most likely location for the tunnel to be built is the Camarinal Threshold, the shallowest point of the Strait of Gibraltar, with a maximum depth of 300 metres below sea level. 

Confidence in the project supported by technological progress 

The Strait Tunnel of Gibraltar is a “high complexity” project, recognised as an official of the state-owned company, and has no equal on the planet. Nevertheless, the engineers involved are confident that the technological progress in the tunnel industry over the past decade will open up new perspectives for the material implementation of the project. They can also remove the last doubts about the technical feasibility of the work. 

Favourable economic growth in the region  

An additional advantage is the “favourable economic growth in the region”. The port of Tangier Med in Morocco is undergoing an unstoppable positive dynamic. Together with the port of Algeciras, they would form a “major hub at Gibraltar”. Moreover, it would multiply trade on both sides of the Straits. The project would thus have “indisputable strategic value” for the region and would become one of five intercontinental connections in the world. 

According to technicians, the infrastructure is feasible from a technical point of view. “The connection of the Straits is possible,” Alejandro Castillo, a civil engineer and professor at the University of Granada, explained in an interview with Cope. According to him, there are already technologies and materials to ensure the implementation of such a large-scale project. However, these must be scaled up to unprecedented dimensions. He also thinks that Spain, together with Morocco, has the technical capacity to rise to the challenge. 

According to his estimates, the project would require an investment of €10 – €20 billion. That amounts to 2% to 5% of Spain’s GDP. Furthermore, the estimated construction time would be between 10 and 15 years. 

Also read: US wants to restart tunnel project between Spain and Morocco 

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