Red Sea Oil Tanker Could Leave 10 Million Without Clean Water and Harm Ecosystems

A deteriorating oil tanker named The Safer is posing a big risk.

The Three foot rock islands, Gulf of Aden, Red Sea, Yemen
Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Is it possible to prevent the next big oil spill? 

Since 2015, a deteriorating oil tanker named The Safer has been stranded off the coast of Yemen because of an ongoing war. Now, a new study published in Nature Sustainability last month warns that an increasingly likely spill could have devastating consequences for a country already suffering from more than five years of conflict and blockade, as well as the wider region. 

“The prospective spill threatens to harm the environment, economy, and public health of the countries bordering the Red Sea,” the study authors write.

The Safer Isn’t Safe

The Safer is currently moored 4.8 nautical miles off of Yemen’s Red Sea coast. It contains 1.1 million barrels of oil, more than four times the amount that spilled from the Exxon Valdez in 1989, and experts are increasingly worried that this oil will end up in the vulnerable Red Sea.

“Protracted conflict and blockade has left the ship in a deteriorating state, as the vast majority of the people responsible for maintaining it are no longer there,” study co-author and Stanford biomedical informatics graduate student Benjamin Huynh tells Treehugger in an email. “There remains a very small skeleton crew aboard doing what little they can, but experts familiar with the situation say the spill is inevitable in the absence of intervention.” 

There are two main ways the oil on the vessel could spill, the study authors explain: 

  1. A storm or simple wear and tear could cause a leak that would spill the oil directly into the sea. The ship is single-hulled, which means there is no other barrier between the oil and the water if the hull is breached.
  2. A combustion could occur either from a buildup of gasses or an attack. 

To find out what would happen if disaster struck, the researchers relied on models. 

“We modeled the spill thousands of times using different possible weather scenarios to get a sense of possible spill trajectories,” Huynh says.

Their models allowed them to outline a timeline of the potential disaster.

  • 24 Hours: An estimated 51% of the oil will have evaporated.
  • Six to 10 days: The oil will reach Yemen’s Western coastline. The researchers estimated that cleanup efforts would leave 39.7% of the oil floating on the water at this point.
  • Two Weeks: The spill will reach Yemen’s important ports of Hudaydah and Salif, through which the country receives 68% of its humanitarian aid.
  • Three Weeks: The spill could extend as far as the Port of Aden and reach ports and desalination plants in Saudi Arabia and Eritrea. 

A Disaster Within Disasters

The people of Yemen are already suffering because of an ongoing conflict. The country imports 90 to 97% of its fuel and 90% of its food supply and more than half of its population relies on humanitarian aid delivered through its ports. Out of a total of 29,825,968 people, 18 million need help to access clean water and 16 million need help with food. The spill could interrupt this aid by disrupting ports, and threaten the entire region’s clean water supply by contaminating desalination plants along the coast. Because of this context, the researchers were especially interested in predicting the public health consequences of an oil spill.

“The expected public health impact of the spill is staggering,” Huynh says. “With nearly 10 million losing access to clean water and 7 million losing access to food supplies, we'd expect mass preventable deaths through starvation, dehydration, and water-borne illness. This is further compounded by the expected fuel and medical supplies shortage, potentially inducing widespread hospital shutdowns.”

The oil’s impact isn’t limited to the water. Air pollution from evaporation and combustion would also be a major hazard. The researchers estimated that hospitalizations from heart or respiratory disease could jump anywhere between 5.8 and 42% depending on the timing, length, and conditions of the spill. These hospitalizations could go up 530 percent for cleanup workers directly exposed to the pollution. 

While this particular study was focused on the health impacts of the spill, the authors noted it would also harm unique and important Red Sea ecosystems.

In particular, Red Sea corals have proven themselves to be resilient to the climate crisis. While temperatures in the northern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba have risen faster than the global average, there have been no incidents of coral bleaching in the area. A 2020 study found the  Stylophora pistillata reef-building coral from the Gulf of Aqaba was able to mount a fast gene expression response and recovery to temperatures of up to 32 degrees Celsius. 

“Such temperatures are not anticipated to occur in the region within this century, giving real hope for the preservation of at least one major coral reef ecosystem for future generations,” the authors wrote.

However, an oil spill in the region would threaten these rare corals that have the potential to survive the climate crisis.

Not Too Late

The Safer remains safe for now, however, and the researchers urge immediate action to keep it that way.

“The spill and its potentially disastrous impacts remain entirely preventable through offloading the oil,” the study authors conclude. “Our results stress the need for urgent action to avert this looming disaster.”

Unfortunately, little progress has been made in this direction. Access to the Safer is currently controlled by the Ansar-Allah, or Houthis, an armed political group in North Yemen. Negotiations between this group and the UN to stage an inspection or repair of the vessel are currently paused with no resumption in sight. 

Beyond Yemen, the incident is an example of how political conflict can put human health and the environment at risk. Another example Huynh cites is the FSO Nabarima, an offshore facility that fell into disrepair near Venezuela and Trinidad after the U.S. imposed sanctions on Venezuela in 2019. The oil on board was finally offloaded by April 2021.

“While the Nabarima situation was resolved, both issues have been highly politicized, and my belief as a public health practitioner is that international actors need to prioritize the lives of those expected to suffer from the spill over their political agendas,” Huynh says.

View Article Sources
  1. Huynh, Benjamin Q., et al. "Public Health Impacts Of An Imminent Red Sea Oil Spill." Nature Sustainability, 2021, doi:10.1038/s41893-021-00774-8

  2. "Missiles and Food." Oxfam, 2017.

  3. Savary, Romain, et al. "Fast and Pervasive Transcriptomic Resilience and Acclimation Of Extremely Heat-Tolerant Coral Holobionts From the Northern Red Sea". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 118, no. 19, 2021, p. e2023298118 doi:10.1073/pnas.2023298118.