Ecological ‘disaster’ as Houthi-sunk ship leaches fertilizer into Red Sea

Warnings have been issued that the sinking of the Rubymar, which carried oil and 22,000 tons of fertilizer, could cause ecological damage to the Red Sea. 

The British-owned cargo vessel that was attacked by Houthi militants last month sunk on Saturday, after taking on water for days. 

It is the first vessel to be fully destroyed by the Yemeni rebel group, which has vowed to attack ships over Israel’s catastrophic war in Gaza. 

At risk from the toxic substances on the ship are a bustling fishing industry, some of the world’s largest coral reefs and desalination plants supplying millions with drinking water.

Even before plunging to the ocean’s depths, the vessel was leaking heavy fuel that triggered a 30 km oil slick through the waterway, critical for Europe’s cargo and energy supplies. 

In recent days, the US Central Command, which oversees the Middle East, has warned of an “environmental disaster” in the making. 

This satellite image taken by Planet Labs PBC shows the Belize-flagged ship Rubymar in the Red Sea on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024.

Besides its hazardous cargo, this has much to do with the unique natural features of the Red Sea, said Ian Ralby, founder of maritime security firm I.R. Consilium.

The waterway has a circular water pattern, which operates essentially as a giant lagoon.

“What spills in the Red Sea, stays in the Red Sea,” said Ralby. “There are many ways it can be harmed.”

Saudi Arabia has the world’s largest network of desalination plants, with entire cities like Jeddah relying on the facilities that draw on the Red Sea for almost all of their drinking water. Oil can disrupt and inflict costly damage on saltwater conversion systems. 

The Red Sea is also a vital source of seafood, especially in Yemen, where fishing was the second largest export after oil before the current civil war between the Iran-backed Houthis and Yemen’s Sunni government.

Houthi attacks continue

An Italian Navy destroyer on Saturday evening shot down a Houthi drone, meanwhile. 

The UAV, heading towards Italy’s ship, reportedly had similar characteristics to those used in previous attacks.

Deployed in February, the Italian navy vessel is the flagship of the European operation Aspides under the leadership of Rear Admiral Stefano Costantino.

It was the first direct attack on Italy by Houthis, who until now had only carried out raids on US and British vessels.

“The Houthi terrorist attacks are a serious violation of international law and an attack on the security of maritime traffic on which our economy depends,” said Italian Defence Minister Guido Crosetto. 

He called for a pan-European approach to defence, especially in the increasingly lively Red Sea.

 “Let’s make it clear: Italy, like most nations, cannot manage to defend itself alone,” the minister said in an interview with the Italian news outlet Corriere della Sera. 

“We need to coordinate with allies, starting with Europe: we need to organise common forces, common training… Unfortunately, we are among the last to understand the need to have a solid defence. We pay for a cultural legacy, a widespread ‘anti-militarism’.”

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