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Red Sea on the Brink of Environmental Catastrophe
Maxar Satellite image of the FSO Safer tanker moored off Ras Issa port, in Yemen, on June 17, 2020. (Satellite image ©2020 Maxar Technologies)

Red Sea on the Brink of Environmental Catastrophe

Abandoned, rebel-held Yemeni tanker could spill four times as much oil as Exxon Valdez

[CAIRO] The Red Sea has been flirting with environmental disaster for six years, ever since Houthi rebels seized control of the FSO Safer, a floating storage and offloading vessel for petroleum moored north of the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah.

Last year it began to leak.

Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, the de facto president of Yemen, in a tweet congratulating the Egyptian government on the reopening of the Suez Canal last week, warned of a greater crisis if the deteriorating 44-year-old vessel loses hull integrity.

Rachel Shelley, a senior environmental science research associate at the University of East Anglia and a longtime South Sinai resident, told The Media Line: “The Safer contains 1.1 million barrels of oil [one barrel is 42 US gallons]. This is nearly four times the volume of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez, a disaster which devastated Price William Sound, Alaska in 1989.”

Nadine Wahab, founder of Eco-Dahab, a sustainable destination management organization based in South Sinai, Egypt, told The Media Line: “During the Mauritius oil spill last year, emergency forces managed to pump out the majority of the oil on board MV Wakashio, but unfortunately 1,000 [metric] tons [approximately 7,330 barrels] spilled into the ocean, killing local corals, mangroves, dolphins and whales.

“BP only managed to recover 25% of the [4.9 million barrels of] oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. And only 10 to 15% of the [260,000 barrels of] marine oil was recovered after the Exxon Valdez oil spill,” Wahab added.

The Red Sea is home to five of the world’s endangered marine species: whale sharks, mantas, dugongs, Napoleon wrasses and turtles, as well as countless other species such as sharks, dolphins and migratory birds.

Karine Kleinhaus, from the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, told The Media Line: “The importance of the Red Sea ecosystem cannot be overstated. The coral reefs of the northern Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba are understood to be among the last reef ecosystems in the world that will thrive beyond the middle of this century.

“Coral species of this region are surprisingly resilient to the global climate change effects of rising sea temperatures and ocean acidification. They are able to withstand, indeed thrive in, waters + 6-7° C warmer than the current summer maximum and a decrease in pH (ocean acidification),” Kleinhaus said.

Houthi, in his tweet, said, “… we call on the United Nations to implement the Safer agreement [to inspect and repair the tanker]. If an environmental catastrophe occurs with the explosion of the Safer vessel, the world will stop not for a week as happened with the Suez Canal, but everything will stop for a considerable period of time, and it will halt the navigation of military and other ships. We hold them [the UN] accountable.”

The Safer agreement, reached in November between the United Nations and the Houthi leadership, was to allow a UN-led team access to Safer by January for purposes of inspection and repair.

On January 28, UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said the oil tanker inspection would be delayed until March, adding, “Sticking to the new inspection timeline would depend on the cooperation of the Houthis.”

After the UN committed $3.35 million to purchase materials and prepare for the deployment of personnel, Houthi officials recommended that the United Nations halt the preparations.

Mark Lowcock, the UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, said in a briefing to the Security Council on February 18: “Ansar Allah [Houthi authorities] recently announced plans to ‘review’ their approval for the long-planned mission and advised the United Nations to pause some preparations. They have now dropped this review. Unfortunately, we only heard that they dropped the review after a key deadline had passed to deploy the team in March.

“It is now difficult to say when exactly the mission might go. Ansar Allah have recently made several new requests that the UN can’t meet. Mission preparations can’t be finalized until these issues are also resolved,” Lowcock said.

Dr. Abdulqader Mohammed al-Kharraz is an environmental assessment professor at the College of Marine Sciences and Environment at Hodeidah University and a former chairman of Yemen’s Environmental Protection Authority. He discussed the consequences if the FSO Safer broke apart.

“Pollution will reach all countries bordering the Red Sea, and the impact will be greatest on Yemen. Ports in Yemen will stop operating, especially the port of Hodeidah, and international navigation through Bab el-Mandeb will stop,” Kharraz told The Media Line. “The spill will destroy marine life in the Red Sea or it will migrate beyond the Red Sea.”

Kharraz estimated the cost of trying to repair the damage to biodiversity in the event of a spill at $51 billion, in comparison to the $12 million it would take to siphon the oil from the vessel and move it to a dry dock.

“Over the next several decades the damage would be very great for the environment and also for the people and the agricultural soil in the coastal areas,” he said.

“The immediate risks of a large-scale oil spill such as this for human populations would be: air contamination; contaminated, tainted seafood; and contamination of fresh water (as desalinated water is the main source of fresh water in this region),” Kharraz said.

Shelly said, “In addition, the coral reefs and associated ecosystems (mangroves, seagrass beds and sandy bottoms) would be severely damaged. This would impact all marine life and place extreme pressure on those who make their livelihoods from the sea, whether through artisanal fishing or tourism or by other means. Coming at a time when these populations are already suffering hardships resulting from the lack of tourist revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the timing could not be worse.”

Wahab said, “Dahab is a small diving community. People travel from across the world to visit its reefs. The Red Sea and specifically its marine ecosystem are vital to many communities’ survival, especially those that depend on diving and water sports like Dahab.

“The spill could affect Egypt’s tourism revenues, 12% of the national GDP prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, for years to come. We are watching an environmental catastrophe in slow motion that would affect the livelihoods of 28 million people.”

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