An environmental deadline lingers on the shores of the Red Sea. The United Nations Environment Program has warned that an abandoned oil tanker on the shores of Yemen’s the Red Sea is leaking 10 million barrels of oil and threatening “environmental, economic and humanitarian catastrophe.” Huge shipping FSOs loaded with 1.148 million barrels of light crude oil have been stuck at the Ras Issa Red Sea oil terminal for more than five long years since the start of Yemen’s civil war.
The ship has faced a number of structural problems and has been a regular concern to many in Yemen and beyond, since being abandoned in 2015. However, in May 2020, seawater began to enter the engine room, threatening to destabilize the ship and scatter its entire cargo in the surrounding waters. If the worst comes to the worst, the decaying tanker is likely to have four times the amount of oil spilled in the infamous 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster.
The head of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), Inner Anderson, told the UN Security Council on July 15 that “time is running out to work in a coordinated manner to prevent the deteriorating, economic and humanitarian catastrophe of our environment.” She added, “Preventing this kind of crisis from rain is really the only option.”
Independent experts told UNEP that a major outbreak between July and September would affect 100 percent of Yemen’s fisheries in a matter of days. As oil spills from the East, its legacy could be disastrous for marine life and lead to a wider ecosystem year after year. Yemen’s environmental organization Holm Akhdar estimates that the Red Sea and its inhabitants will not be able to recover for at least 30 years. It is particularly worrying that the Red Sea contains many rare species of dolphins, dugongs, turtles, manta, marine, and sharks, not to mention about 300 species of corals.
A mountain also leads to a huge amount of human suffering. Yemen is currently the epicenter of a brutal civil war between the Yemeni government and the Houthi armed movement. 5 years after the conflict, the Arab world is already facing a severe humanitarian crisis, with nearly 300,000 children at risk of starvation and severe malnutrition. If an oil spill occurs, it will add further stress to the 26 million people who depend on the Red Sea and coastal areas for their livelihood. Then the economic cost comes. An oil spill has shut down the port of Al Hodeidah for six months, pushing up fuel prices by 200 percent and doubling food prices in Yemen, exacerbating the ongoing famine.
Given the horrific tensions in the area, there is no easy solution. The FSO has been in a safe area controlled by Houthi rebels since the start of the civil war. Last week, Houthi officials said they would allow a UN rescue mission to conduct a technical assessment of the ship and make initial repairs, Reuters reported. However, similar assurances were given earlier, only to read the flat at a later date.