Yemen faces ‘environmental disaster’ as shipwreck threatens Red Sea

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The sinking of a bulk carrier off the coast of Yemen after a Houthi missile attack poses a serious environmental risk, with thousands of tonnes of fertilizer potentially spilling into the Red Sea, officials and experts warn. are doing.

Leaks of fuel and chemical pollutants could have negative effects on marine life, including coral reefs, and affect coastal communities that rely on fishing for a living, they said.

The Belize-flagged, Lebanese-operated Rubimar sank on Saturday with 21,000 tons of ammonium phosphate and sulfate fertilizer on board, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) said.

It has been flooded since a Houthi missile attack damaged its hull on February 18, marking the biggest hit to a commercial vessel since the rebels began targeting vessels in November.

Rubimar, which already left an oil slick from a fuel leak while afloat, poses a new environmental threat underwater.

Abdulsalam al-Jabi, head of the Yemeni government’s environmental protection agency, warned of “double pollution” that could affect up to 500,000 people, including 78,000 fishermen and their families.

“The initial contamination was oil pollution from the large amount of fuel oil on board,” he said, estimating the amount to be more than 200 tonnes.

The second risk is posed by fertilizers, which are highly soluble and can harm “organisms such as fish, coral reefs and seaweed” if released into the ocean, Jaabi added.

Overall pollution could have “significant economic costs”, especially for coastal communities that rely on fishing for survival, officials warned.

Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels seized the capital Sanaa in 2014 and drove the internationally recognized government south to Aden, prompting Saudi Arabia to lead a military coalition to prop it up the following year. did.

The ceasefire that has been in place since April 2022 has largely remained in place.

The Rubimar was the first ship to sink since the Houthis launched a Red Sea expedition in solidarity with Palestinians in the Gaza Strip during the Israeli-Hamas war.

Satellite images show the British-owned Belize-flagged Rubimar cargo ship before it sank after being attacked by Yemen's Houthis in the Red Sea on March 1, according to the US Central Command.

The Belize-flagged, British-owned cargo ship Rubimar, which was attacked by Yemen’s Houthis, is seen on satellite images before sinking in the Red Sea on March 1, according to U.S. Central Command. Maxar Technologies / via Reuters

Plans to tow the ship failed after port authorities in Aden, Djibouti and Saudi Arabia refused to accept it, said Roy Cooley, CEO of Blue Fleet Group, the ship’s Lebanese operator.

Abdulsalam Humaid, the Yemeni government’s transport minister, said Aden’s refusal “stems from fear of environmental disaster.”

Djibouti also refused to accept the ship, citing “environmental risks”, an official close to the country’s president said.

Saudi authorities could not be reached for comment.

Julian Jasati, Greenpeace’s Middle East and North Africa program director, warned that “without immediate action, this situation could develop into a major environmental crisis.”

“The sinking of the ship could cause further damage to the hull and the water could come into contact with thousands of tonnes of fertilizer,” he added.

This “will upset the balance of the marine ecosystem and cause cascading effects throughout the food web,” Jaysati said.

UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg said five experts from the UN Environment Program will visit Yemen this week to conduct an assessment in conjunction with the Yemeni Ministry of Environment.

“The large amount of chemicals on board the Rubimar shipwreck poses an environmental risk to the Red Sea in the form of algae blooms and damaged coral,” said George Wyckoff, head of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain. “There is,” he warned.

Speaking at a conference in Doha on Tuesday, Mr Wyckoff said the ship was in the Red Sea because it “posed a risk of subsurface impact” to other ships passing through the vital waterway, which normally carries about 12% of global trade. He said it also poses a threat to navigation.

It remains unclear who is ultimately responsible for the Rubimar, which was sailing from the United Arab Emirates to Bulgaria.

CENTCOM and maritime security company Ambry said the ship was registered in the United Kingdom, while the Lebanese operator said it was registered in the Marshall Islands.

Faisal al-Talabi, a Yemeni official who is a member of the emergency management room tasked with dealing with Rubimar, said Yemen was in contact with both the owner and operator, but that the assistance was “insignificant. There was no change,” he said.

“Part of the problem is that they did not respond to official messages from Yemen,” Talabi said, without disclosing the owner’s identity.

To stem a potential environmental crisis, Yemeni authorities will send teams to collect water samples and investigate pollution on the coast, Talabi said.

Water sources in coastal areas and desalination plants could also be affected, he warned.

“We have special containment booms and we are prepared to set them up in environmentally sensitive areas such as contaminated islands,” he said.

“The worst-case scenario is pollution,” Talabi said.

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