An oil spill in the Red Sea caused by a decaying ship might have considerably worse consequences than expected, with 8 million people losing access to clean water and Yemen's Red Sea fishing stock being decimated in three weeks.

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
(Photo : Wikimedia Commons)

Negotiations are underway to unload the estimated 1.1 million barrels of crude oil still onboard the FSO Safer, which has been degrading month by month since its abandonment in 2017. The vessel has four times the quantity of the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez in the Gulf of Alaska in 1989, and a disaster is becoming more likely.

Spreading Oil Spill

Oil spill
(Photo : Getty Images)

According to the newest modeling, the oil will travel well beyond Yemen, wreaking havoc on the ecosystem in Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, and Djibouti. This is different from prior studies in that it evaluates the impact more than a week after the leak.

Despite repeated warnings, notably at the UN Security Council, of the consequences if the tanker explodes, breaks apart, or starts leaking, three-way discussions between the Houthi rebels, the UN-recognized government of Yemen, and the UN have failed. As a result, UN authorities have been unable to get assurances for the vessel's maintenance, mainly its decaying hull, which is currently managed by a crew of just seven people.

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Disaster Model

The modeling, which was published in the journal Nature Sustainability, revealed that the leak was likely to close the Red Sea ports of Hodeidah and Salif within two weeks, jeopardizing the delivery of 200,000 tonnes of petroleum to Yemen, which is equivalent to 38% of the country's fuel needs. As a result, fuel costs are expected to climb by up to 80%, and the lack of fuel for water pumps would leave 8 million Yeminis without access to flowing water. In addition, if the region's desalination plants become contaminated, up to 2 million people will lose access to water.

Although half of the oil is expected to evaporate in the sea within 24 hours, the rest will reach Yemen's western coastline in six to ten days and ports farther south in three weeks.

Reaching Aden

If the spill reaches southern ports like Aden, the number of people needing food aid ranges from 5.7 million to 8.4 million. The figures are based on the season in which the leak happens and the size of the oil spill.

Depending on the season, the leak will endanger 66.5 percent -85.2 percent of Yemen's Red Sea fisheries in one week and 93.5 percent -100 percent of those fisheries in three weeks.

Dire Consequences

oil spill
(Photo : Mathias P.R. Reding)

The consequences of air pollution from a spill vary from 11.3 million person-days for a slow-release winter spill to 19.5 million person-days for a fast-release summer disaster, including an increased risk of cardiovascular and respiratory hospitalizations.

Coral reefs in the Red Sea, investigated for their unusual resistance to seawater warming, would also be endangered.

"The spill may stymie global trade via the crucial Bab el-Mandeb strait, which is 29 kilometers wide at its narrowest point and carries 10% of world shipping traffic," according to research published in Nature Sustainability. In addition, exclusion zones set up for clean-up may cause traffic to be rerouted, and cargo may be delayed as ships that have been exposed to oil must be cleaned."

"The potential of a leak is becoming very likely," it continues. The Safer is single-hulled, which means that if there is a breach, the onboard oil will flow directly into the water. The engine room was flooded in May 2020 due to a seawater pipe rupture, and the vessel's fire suppression equipment is not working. A spill might happen as a result of a leak or a fire.

"A leak might result from the vessel's hull continuing to deteriorate or from a breach caused by adverse weather; combustion could result from the build-up of volatile gases aboard the vessel or a direct attack on the vessel."

The UN has asked the Houthis for permission to inspect the ship, but they want guarantees that it would be repaired, which would cost money that the UN does not have.

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