Max Kaplan-Zantopp

A Catastrophe in the Red Sea is Imminent

December 16, 2020

The Safer oil tanker has not been maintained in the five years since its takeover by Houthi rebels off the west coast of Yemen. Experts warn of a disastrous oil spill in the Red Sea as the vessel nears its final stages of decay. Can this be stopped before it’s too late?

Hosting at least 365 stony coral species and more than 1000 species of fish along its entire coastline, the Red Sea is categorized as one of the most productive coral reef ecosystems in the world. Not only do marine organisms depend on the productivity of coral reefs but so do people. In fact, 28 million people living along its coastline throughout Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Djibouti, Eritrea, Sudan, Egypt, and Israel depend on the Red Sea’s vast ecosystem for food and as a source of livelihood.

Annual tourism revenues hover in the $12 billion range, and the yearly value of fisheries amounts to approximately $230 million for the region. Economics aside, the rich biodiversity the Red Sea contains also has the potential to yield new advancements in medicine as antiviral drugs and anticancer agents have already been developed using extracts of marine sponges from reefs in the Caribbean

But on top of all of this, coral reefs serve a supremely important role in terms of regulating the amount of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere. Reef building corals, like ones located in the Red Sea, contain photosynthetic algae, known as zooxanthellae. Through photosynthesis, these algal organisms remove carbon dioxide from the water to make food in the form of carbohydrates that both the zooxanthellae and the coral polyps can consume. In a way, they act like underwater versions of rainforests, but like their terrestrial counterparts, coral reefs are under threat from a wide variety of stressors including ocean acidification, rising coastal urbanization, and overexploitation of marine resources.

But now, another threat is endangering the Red Sea and its diverse ecosystem; an impending catastrophe whose damage dwarfs the 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.

Another Giant Oil Spill

Highly diverse coral reefs of the Red Sea are home to thousands of species, all of which are at immediate risk in case of an oil spill. The wellbeing of these colorful reefs is key to the livelihood of millions of people along the shores of the Red Sea. Photo by Prof. Maoz Fine.

60 kilometers off the west coast of Yemen, a country currently experiencing a brutal civil war, lies the Safer Floating Storage and Offloading (FSO) tanker. Since its takeover by Houthi rebels in 2015, the FSO tanker has not undergone any maintenance to prevent its decay, which researchers now fear is nearing its final stages.

If the vessel does indeed decay to the point of leakage, the consequences would be devastating. The first thing to consider in this plausible scenario is the scale of the disaster by examining the infamous Exxon Valdez incident. 260,000 barrels of oil were spilled covering 1,300 miles of coastline and killing hundreds of thousands of marine wildlife animals in the process. Even 30 years later and intense clean-up efforts, certain areas of Alaska’s Prince William Sound still contain large traces of crude oil. By contrast, the Safer FSO tanker holds 1.148 million barrels worth of crude oil, more than four times the volume of Exxon Valdez. Plus, a massive spill any time in these winter months would be even more destructive as winter currents can more widely disperse oil.

“Coral reefs line almost all 4,000 kilometers of the Red Sea’s coastlines and also surround multiple islands within it, so the oil that spills in any part of the Sea threatens these valuable ecosystems,” says Prof. Maoz Fine of Bar-Ilan University’s Goodman Faculty of Life Sciences and the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Science.

A Geopolitical Nightmare

“Even 30 years later and intense clean-up efforts, certain areas of Alaska’s Prince William Sound still contain large traces of crude oil.” Photo by Melissa Bradley on Unsplash

Currently, the Houthis, an armed political movement, control access to the Safer FSO single-hull tanker. Up until recently, they have denied the UN’s requests to board the vessel to develop proper risk impact analyses and contingency plans in the event of an otherwise likely spill. Allowing the UN’s involvement would be necessary in preventing the spill from occurring.

However, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, remains wary of the Houthi authorities reluctant cooperation. He noted that similar assurances were made by the Houthis in August 2019 before being withdrawn the night before the UN inspection team was supposed to board the vessel. Regardless, the lack of smooth cooperation has impeded the UN’s ability to take concrete steps to prevent the potential spill, despite multiple warnings of the FSO tanker’s degradation. 

“Not only are Red Sea ecosystems and the livelihoods of 28 million people at stake, but an oil spill could aggravate the security situation in the region as vital resources become polluted, scarce, and contested,” says Inger Anderson, Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). Anderson predicts the entirety of Yemen’s fisheries would be affected within days and spark an estimated $1.5 billion worth of damage over the next 25 years. She warns that a spill of this magnitude would also prompt the closure of Yemen’s nearby port in Al Hudaydah for at least six months, thereby causing food and fuel prices to spike drastically. Other countries bordering the Red Sea would also be similarly affected in due time.

“Responding to a spill would mean containing and recovering the oil at sea and cleaning up the shoreline, but it will take years for ecosystems and economies to recover,” says Anderson. “To top it all, the COVID-19 crisis has relegated the oil spill issue further down the priority list of regional States.”

Can this be Prevented?

“The lack of smooth cooperation has impeded the UN’s ability to take concrete steps to prevent the potential spill, despite multiple warnings of the FSO tanker’s degradation.” Photo by Mat Reding on Unsplash

In the absence of assessment procedures, the only way to truly eradicate the threat of the Safer’s massive oil spill is to physically remove the oil from the vessel. However, this requires rounds of necessary inspection, appropriate repairs, and proper maintenance in order to safely extract the oil before disposing of the deteriorating tanker altogether, a proposal outlined by Martin Griffiths, the UN envoy for Yemen. Unfortunately, this response strategy has not been initiated due to the Houthis noncompliance despite the Yemen Government’s approval.

According to a policy brief article published on December 15, 2020 in Frontier in Marine Science, the authors write that 4.8 million barrels of crude oil and refined petroleum products normally pass through the Red Sea each day. The authors recommend the immediate drafting of leak containment strategies specific to the Red Sea’s water currents and urge oil companies who transport their products across the Sea to make yearly contributions towards spill mitigation funds regulated by the UN. 

Focusing global efforts towards clean, renewable, and sustainable energy is critical for the tumultuous years to come. Without shifting away from the reliance on fossil fuels, the routine transport operations of oil across our waters will continue to threaten marine ecosystems and the communities that depend on them. It’s not just the Safer spill that needs to be prevented, it’s the other potential incidents that are to likely happen in the future.

This ZAVIT article was also published in The Jewish Journal on 15 Dec. 2020