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Red Sea Conflict Threatens Environmental Catastrophe

The fallout from the conflict in the Red Sea extends to its vibrant ecosystem and the communities it supports. On March 2, The Rubymar, a British-owned commercial vessel, sank after being struck by a Houthi missile in a February 18 attack. The Rubymar is the first ship to be sunk since the Houthis began targeting Red Sea trade last fall. The ship was adrift for 12 days, leaving an oil slick some 18 miles long, and it has been posited that its dragging anchor was the source of reported damage to undersea telecommunications cables. The wreck now lies 16 nautical miles off the Yemeni coast at a depth of around 330 feet, and could pose a threat to other ships transiting the Red Sea.

But attention has now turned to the ship’s cargo: the Rubymar reportedly carried 21,000 tons of ammonium phosphate sulfate fertilizer. Currently, there is no precise assessment of the vessel’s condition. Government-affiliated Minister of Water and Environment Tawfeeq al-Sharjabi confirmed that a specialized technical team visited the Rubymar before it sank, but further inspections were reportedly halted after airstrikes targeted a fishing boat near the stranded vessel, resulting in casualties, missing fishermen, and damage to the ship. United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg expressed deep concern over the incident and announced that five UN experts will be dispatched to assess the environmental impact.

Scientists fear that the release of large amounts of fertilizer in the shallow coastal waters could trigger a massive algae bloom, which would absorb much of the available subsurface oxygen and block out sunlight. The result could be catastrophic to the marine ecosystem, particularly the area’s coral reefs, and to accompanying fisheries. The Ministry of Water and Environment has established a crisis unit and called upon the regional and international community to take immediate action to prevent or mitigate an environmental catastrophe, but such efforts are likely to be limited by the security situation and dependent on Houthi approval.

At present, action is limited to a monitoring operation. UN experts have confirmed that salvaging the sunken vessel raises a number of challenges and they intend to procure an electronic submarine to obtain more information on the situation. On March 24, a joint team from the Yemen’s Maritime Affairs Authority and the Environmental Protection Authority conducted an inspection visit to the wreck to collect water samples from various points around the vessel to examine the extent of any fertilizer or fuel leakage.

Apart from the direct risk that the fighting in the Red Sea carries for coastal communities, the renewed threat of ecological catastrophe is a cruel twist for those who rely on the sea for their livelihoods. Last year, the UN successfully managed to offload more than a million barrels of oil from the decrepit tanker FSO Safer onto a replacement ship, the Yemen, after years of Houthi intransigence. But the conflict now imperils that ship, and the decommissioning of the FSO Safer remains incomplete, as the second phase of the operation involving its cleaning and dismantling has yet to be carried out. Each new attack on transiting vessels, including oil tankers, brings the prospect of environmental degradation and economic disaster.

The fishing industry has been badly affected by the conflict in Yemen, even as it takes on greater relative importance as a source of income. With the government unable to export its oil and gas, fishing now reportedly represents some 60 percent of exports, even as pre-war production has decreased by half. The recent militarization of the Red Sea has worsened matters, displacing thousands of fishermen, particularly from Hudaydah, and imperiling the lives of those who remain.