NewsSinking of Rubymar Threatens Catastrophic Environmental Impact in Red Sea

Sinking of Rubymar Threatens Catastrophic Environmental Impact in Red Sea

AT SEA - MARCH 3: (EDITORS NOTE: Best quality available) This handout photo provided by Yemeni Al-Joumhouria TV, shows the British-registered cargo ship 'Rubymar' sinking, after it was targeted by Yemen's Houthi forces in international waters in the Red Sea, on March 3, 2024, in the Red Sea. (Photo by Al-Joumhouriah channel via Getty Images)
AT SEA - MARCH 3: (EDITORS NOTE: Best quality available) This handout photo provided by Yemeni Al-Joumhouria TV, shows the British-registered cargo ship 'Rubymar' sinking, after it was targeted by Yemen's Houthi forces in international waters in the Red Sea, on March 3, 2024, in the Red Sea. (Photo by Al-Joumhouriah channel via Getty Images)
Images source: © GETTY | Mohammed Hamoud
4:33 AM EST, March 4, 2024

Beyond the issue of the fertilizers, substantial amounts of fuel have leaked from the vessel as well. According to the TankerTrackers website, this incident is expected to result in "an ecological disaster affecting Yemeni territorial waters and the Red Sea at large."

On February 18, the Rubymar was struck by a Houthi missile, causing an oil slick stretching over 25 miles in the Red Sea waters. Although the crew was rescued, their status remained uncertain for several days. Eventually, the internationally recognized Yemeni government confirmed that the ship had sunk.

Perfect storm for an environmental disaster

Ian Ralby, the founder of the maritime security firm I.R. Consilium, explains that the Red Sea's unique geographic features exacerbate the potential for disaster. In winter, water currents move northward toward the Suez Canal, and in summer, they flow outward to the Gulf of Aden. This current pattern means that contaminants released into the Red Sea are essentially trapped within it, as Ralby underscored in his discussion with the AP agency.

For many years, Saudi Arabia has relied on desalinating water from the Red Sea to meet its freshwater needs. The spilled fuel poses a significant risk to these desalination plants, potentially clogging and damaging them.

A threat to marine life and livelihoods

The Red Sea is not just crucial for desalination, but also as a vital source of seafood. Prior to the ongoing civil war, fishing was Yemen's second-largest export after oil. Hence, the ecosystem's health directly impacts the livelihoods of many.

The exact volume of oil that has leaked from the Rubymar is unknown, but Ralby estimates it to be no more than 7,000 barrels—a figure surpassing the amount spilled by the Wakashio near Mauritius four years ago, which had dire consequences for local fishermen and the environment. The potential impact of discharging 23,000 tons of synthetic fertilizers, which could trigger algae blooms and create oxygen-depleted "dead zones," is similarly alarming. This threat puts some of the most resilient coral reefs, crucial for scientific study due to their ability to withstand rising temperatures, in jeopardy.

Houthis align with broader conflict narratives

Since November last year, the Houthis have escalated attacks on commercial ships, alleging connections to Israel, the USA, and Great Britain. They claim these actions support Hamas in the Gaza Strip, showing solidarity within the broader context of regional conflicts. In response, the United States led the formation of multinational forces in December, aiming to secure maritime routes through this strategic waterway.

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