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Ecological impact of oil spills and the Ticking Time Bomb off the Coast of Yemen

The Mauritius oil spill

On 25th July this year, MV Wakashio, a Japanese bulk carrier owned by Nagashiki Shipping, travelling from China to Brazil was grounded on a coral reef, Pointe D’Esny, by the coast of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. The ship was carrying about 4000 tonnes of fuel oil and an estimated 1000 tonnes leaked into the ocean—the worst oil spill in the island nation’s history. The blue lagoon by the coastal village of Mahébourg, that was once a pristine turquoise blue, turned to murky black and brown waters.

On 7th August the government declared the incident as a national emergency. Experts from Japan, France and Britain were sent to assist in the cleanup. Emergency workers transferred the remaining oil to another ship and to shore by helicopter. The ship then split into two on 15th August, when most of the fuel had recovered.

Questionable practice by the MV Wakashio crew

Ships passing through the route usually stay in a shipping lane about 16 kilometres from the shore but this was not the case for MV Wakashio. It deviated from the correct trajectory and hit the coral reef about one and a half kilometres from the shore. The reason why it strayed from the route and was grounded so close to Mauritius’ shore is still unknown.

After police questioning, it is believed that the 20-member crew was celebrating a birthday and failed to respond to attempted contact from the coastguards. The ship’s captain, Sunil Kumar Nandeshwar was arrested over the incident. It is also believed that the ship may have approached the shore in search of Wi-Fi signal. Residents from the coastal area also made efforts to clean up the area and minimise the damage by creating oil barriers out of plastic bottles and sugarcane leaves.

Ecological and economic impact of the oil spill

Mauritius is reliant on its marine environment for agriculture, fishing and tourism. The full impact of the oil spill on the water is still unclear but scientists predict a bleak future in the long-term for the contaminated marine life and biodiversity.

The size of the oil spill is not the major source of concern. It is the location, rather, that has concerned Mauritians and environmentalists. The accident took place near Blue Bay Marine Park Reserve, a tourist destination and near an environmentally sensitive area, Point D’Esny, which is protected under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. The treaty, established in 1971 as one of the first modern intergovernmental treaties to protect natural conserve, aims to conserve wetlands. Wetlands are bodies of water—either natural or artificial—including lakes, mangroves, swamps, and coral reefs. The spill also occurred near two internationally protected marine ecosystems including the Ile aux Aigrettes wildlife reserve.

The thick and toxic oil clings to rocks and sand, coating everything it comes into contact with. It can clog the blowholes of sea mammals such as dolphins and whales, hampering their ability to breathe and ultimately killing them. It may also coat the fur of animals such as sea otters, and coat the feathers of birds, leaving them vulnerable to hyperthermia or overheating. Birds with feathers coated in the oil find themselves weighed down and unable to fly. The animals also become vulnerable to organ failure due to ingestion of the toxic oil.

Oil is a hazard to human health

In addition to that, oil spills may pose a hazard to human health. A 2019 study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America scientific journal investigated the health effects of oil spills in Nigeria, Africa’s biggest oil producer. The research found that coastal communities exposed to the toxic chemicals from nearby onshore oil spills experienced a doubled neonatal mortality rate. The evidence also suggested that oil spills increased the risk of stillbirth and infant mortality.

On 21st August, local Mauritius newspaper, Le Mauricien, reported that the local fish in the region affected by the oil spill, a primary source of food for the coastal communities, has now been contaminated with arsenic 500% higher than normal levels. According to the World Health Organisation, arsenic is a natural substance that is harmless to humans in small amounts. It is, however, highly toxic in its inorganic form and long-term exposure, through drinking water and food, may lead to health complications such as arsenic poisoning, skin lesions and skin cancer.

Sinking the vessel—a questionable decision by the authorities?

The Mauritius authorities decided, despite opposition from environmentalists, to sink the MV Wakashio by filling it with seawater. The decision has raised concerns about possibly exacerbating the damage of the oil spill on the marine ecosystem by allowing toxic chemicals from the ship to remain at the bottom of the ocean.

Greenpeace Africa’s Senior Climate and Energy Campaign Manager, Happy Khambule described this as the “worst option” as it could further contaminate the marine ecosystem with insidious toxins. The consequent marine pollution could have drastic consequences for Mauritius which relies on the ocean for food security and tourism. Greenpeace’s Japan Senior Climate and Energy Campaigner, Ayako Sekine, criticised the authorities’ decision to bury the ship, emphasising that, although the option is faster and cheaper, sending the vessel to the bottom of the ocean would bury the problem but not solve it. Thousands of species would remain at risk and the communities would be left to suffer the consequences.

Unfortunately, the Mauritius oil spill is only one out of many oil accidents that occurred this year.

The Norilsk oil spill

A diesel oil spill in Russia’s city of Norilsk occurred on 29th May when a storage tank collapsed, leaking roughly 20 000 tonnes of diesel oil into Arctic rivers. After the Komi pipeline spill in 1994, the Norilsk oil spill is the second-largest oil spill in modern Russian history. The fuel tank was part of Norilsk-Taimyr Energy’s Thermal Power Plant No. 2 which is owned by Norilsk Nickel (Nornickel), the world's largest producer of palladium and high-grade nickel. The company has a reputation as one of Russia’s biggest polluters and the world’s worst sulfur oxide polluter, according to The Barents Observer.

The industrial disaster prompted President Russian Vladimir Putin to declare a state of emergency in June. The spillage polluted a large freshwater lake, Lake Pyasino, sparking fears that it would also travel into a river system and make its way into the Arctic ocean. The Russian Investigative Committee launched a criminal investigation and the mayor of Norilsk was charged with alleged negligence in his response to the disaster. He subsequently announced his resignation on July 20.

After assessing the ecological damage, Russia’s Federal Service for Supervision of Use of Natural Resources (Rosprirodnadzor) requested voluntary contributions of more than $2.1 billion from Norilsk Nickel. This hefty amount equals almost 30% of the company’s net profit for 2019. Norilsk Nickel has contested the fuel spill charge and questions the calculations of the damages claims.

The FSO SAFER—a ticking time bomb off the Coast of Yemen?

Another current complication posing a threat to the environment is the FSO SAFER, an oil tanker in the Red Sea, that is deteriorating due to years of neglect and poor maintenance. The poor condition of the tanker threatens a catastrophic oil spill or explosion that could lead to ecological and humanitarian disaster on a catastrophic scale.

The FSO SAFER is an oil tanker located in the Red Sea, north of the Yemeni city of Al Hudaydah, near Houthi-controlled territory. The 45-year-old vessel, which contains more than one million barrels of Marib light crude oil, has been stranded at sea since it came under the control of Houthi militias at the outbreak of the Yemen civil war in 2015. It has not undergone any essential maintenance then.

In a briefing to the United Nations Security Council, the Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) and Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, Inger Andersen, underscored the dire need for timely intervention in this precarious situation, describing it as a “looming environmental, economic and humanitarian catastrophe”.

An oil spill could have drastic consequences on the marine ecosystem and disrupt the shipping lane through which aid is delivered to about two-thirds of Yemenis. The fisheries along Yemen’s Red Sea coast would be harmed, affecting more than 28 million people whose livelihoods rely on the Red Sea coastal zone. In such a situation, authorities would be forced to close the port of Hudaydah, the largest port and through which most imports are received. This could trigger a sharp increase in fuel and food prices, another grave blow to the Yemeni people who are already facing a humanitarian crisis due to the five-year conflict between the Yemeni government and the Houthi armed movement.

On 27th May, seawater entered the FSO SAFER’s tanker’s engine room. The leak, which was relatively small, was contained by divers and temporarily fixed. There are fears, however, that the temporary repair may deteriorate and allow more water into the SAFER, sinking the entire ship. A leak on the SAFER could potentially spill four times more oil into the Red Sea than the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, the world’s worst oil spill in terms of environmental damage.

The FSO also carries stockpiles of explosive ammonium nitrate, fuelling fears of explosions similar to the recent explosion in Lebanon’s port of Beirut which occurred on 4th August, causing at least 181 deaths, 6,000 injuries. Accidental ignition of gas accumulated in the SAFER’s cargo tanks could lead to an explosion and a fire on board.

Yemeni government and Houthi impasse blocking intervention

The United Nations has made attempts over the years to send experts to conduct technical assessments and repairs of the tanker. The UN proposed to conduct assessments and necessary repairs, extract the oil and dispose of the tanker. The Government of Yemen has agreed to the proposal but negotiations with the Houthis have not.

As the SAFER is Houthi-controlled territory, the United Nations has called on the Houthis militias to grant technical experts permission to assess the tanker, conduct necessary maintenance and extract the oil. One of the areas of dispute is over who should be able to sell the oil once it is extracted. The Houthis insist that they sell it and gain from the revenue. The Minister for Foreign Affairs of Yemen, Mohammed Al-Hadhrami, accused the Houthi militias of using the SAFER tanker as a bargaining chip in the peace process negotiations with a total disregard for the potentially drastic consequences.

On 11 August, Greenpeace wrote a letter addressed to the UN Secretary-General, Guterres, appealing to make the issue a priority for urgent UN action. As the impasse continues, the international community calls for urgent attention on the matter and awaits anxiously for the United Nations to facilitate an agreement with the Houthi militias that will allow the maintenance of the SAFER tanker and avert catastrophe.


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