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Derelict Oil Tanker Off Yemen Poses Serious Health Threats, Scientists Say

/ 25 Nov 2021

Derelict Oil Tanker Off Yemen Poses Serious Health Threats, Scientists Say

In 2015, the oil tanker Safer stopped 4.8 nautical miles from a port near Hodeidah, in Yemen. Since then, scientific warnings of the possibility of an “oil spill disaster” from the ship have grown to a clamour.

The giant oil tanker is carrying more than 1.1 million barrels (more than 40 million gallons) of crude oil.

The state-run oil company that owns the tanker was using the Safer (pronounced “Saffer”) as a floating storage and offloading vessel, but those activities stopped as the conflict in Yemen’s civil war intensified in March 2015. (See a related article, “Yemen’s War Reaches Into Public-University Classrooms”.)

The tanker’s maintenance operations have been completely halted since then and its crew members have shrunk from 100 to only five. Meanwhile, rust and corrosion are taking a toll.

“We expect mass deaths, through starvation, dehydration and water-borne diseases. Compounding the disaster is the expected shortage of fuel and medical supplies, which could lead to widespread hospital closures.”

Benjamin Huynh   The study's lead author

The environmental pressure group Greenpeace has reported that the Safer’s engine room flooded last year, necessitating emergency repairs. The fire-extinguishing system no longer works and the inert gas system needed to prevent explosions has broken down, the activist group said. A rupture of the single-skin hull or an explosion could cause a spill four times worse than the Exxon Valdez disaster, which dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Alaska in 1989.

But despite the oil tanker’s catastrophic condition, negotiations between the United Nations and the Houthi rebel movement, which controls the government in Sana’a and thereby the tanker, have broken down.

Life-Threatening Disruptions

The latest warning came in a study published in the journal Nature Sustainability titled “Public Health Impacts of an Imminent Red Sea Oil Spill.”

The study details the health, environmental and economic disasters that would hit Yemen and other countries bordering the Red Sea, including Saudi Arabia, Djibouti and Eritrea, if such a spill occurred.

“The expected public-health impact from the oil spill is staggering,” Benjamin Huynh, the study’s lead author, told Al-Fanar Media. Nearly ten million people could lose access to clean water, and another seven million to food supplies. “We expect mass deaths, through starvation, dehydration and water-borne diseases. Compounding the disaster is the expected shortage of fuel and medical supplies, which could lead to widespread hospital closures.”

Huynh, a researcher at Stanford University School of Medicine, also predicts that air pollution would lead to a “significant increase in cardiovascular and lung disease.”

oil tanker safer
Image and statistics from the Yemeni environmental organisation Holm Akhdar.

According to the study, a spill from the oil tanker would close the ports of Hodeidah and Saleef within two weeks. That would “disrupt maritime transport across the Red Sea, rerouting many shipments around Africa,” the report’s authors wrote. “We estimate that for each month of Red Sea port closure, delivery of 200,000 metric tons of fuel for Yemen will be disrupted, equivalent to 38 percent of the national fuel requirement.”

The absence of fuel for water supply pumps and trucks would deprive eight million Yemenis of clean water, they added.

According to the Yemeni nongovernmental organisation Holm Akhdar (“Green Dream”), about 850,000 tons of Yemen’s annual fish stock may be damaged. A spill would eliminate 300 species of coral reefs that cover 25 percent of the Yemeni coast and 969 species of fish, it predicted. In addition, about 126,000 Yemeni fishermen would lose their source of income.

‘A Wake-Up Call’

“There will be widespread human costs with the oil spill off the coast of Yemen. It will have the potential to overwhelm medical facilities and threaten the livelihoods and health of millions of people.”

Amir Mohareb   An instructor at Harvard Medical School and a co-author of the study

Amir Mohareb, an instructor at Harvard Medical School and a co-author of the Nature Sustainability study, said the researchers’ findings “should serve as a wake-up call to the international community.”

“There will be widespread human costs with the oil spill off the coast of Yemen,” Mohareb said. “It will have the potential to overwhelm medical facilities and threaten the livelihoods and health of millions of people.”

Huynh, the lead author, said: “Most people can easily imagine how a massive spill could affect the environment, but the effects on public health, especially in a region going through a humanitarian crisis like Yemen, are difficult to understand. Therefore, we developed a model for it.”

The simulations reveal that air pollution from a leak “would increase the risks of hospitalisation for cardiovascular and respiratory causes, depending on the duration of the leak and the presence of smoke from combustion.”

Clean-up workers and other individuals directly exposed to the oil may be at increased risk of contracting the same diseases from inhaling fine particles, Huynh said.

The simulations also looked at clean-up efforts under different conditions, taking into account wind patterns, currents, sea temperature and salinity, and seasonal and daily fluctuations in weather. They concluded that even under very optimistic conditions, “attempts to clean up may be futile.”

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Even if clean-up began immediately with a combination of burners and dispersants under ideal conditions, the effort still could be no more effective than simply letting the oil evaporate, Huynh said. In either case, more than 40 percent of the oil would remain in the water.

“Our models show that clean-up efforts will not be very beneficial,” Huynh said. “The only real solution is to remove the oil from the ship, and there is still time to do that.”




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