Five miles off the coast of Yemen in the Red Sea, there’s a rusting oil tanker.
It’s been compared to a ticking time bomb. That’s because its cargo is 1 million barrels of crude oil waiting to explode or pour out into a spill that could potentially be four times the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off the coast of Alaska.
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UN inspectors have been trying to gain access to the 45-year-old ship known as the FSO Safer, but their efforts have been stymied by the ongoing war in Yemen.
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Ben Huynh, who is a researcher at Stanford University and the lead author of a paper published this week in the journal Nature Sustainability, called “Public health impacts of an imminent Red Sea oil spill,” joined The World’s host Marco Werman from his home in California to discuss the potential disaster an oil spill could cause.
Marco Werman: Tell us about the Safer. What makes it such an environmental risk right now?
Ben Huynh: I think that people can intuitively grasp that a massive oil spill, unprecedented in size is an environmental risk. We have these intuitive images of birds getting oil in their feathers or fish dying out. But I think what’s very unique about this situation and very concerning is the humanitarian crisis that it poses.
Talk about that, because I know you and your colleagues came up with computer models to help you picture the results of an oil spill from specifically this vessel the Safer. What would the human impact be if, say, there is an oil spill?
All of Yemen’s humanitarian aid comes through a handful of key ports, and the vast majority of the population in Yemen is dependent on those key ports for this humanitarian aid. So, when these ports will close because of the oil spill, then millions of people will go without food and clean water — 10 million people in terms of drinking water, around 8 million in terms of losing food. If you’re asking about ecological or environmental damage, that’s the entire Red Sea region. So that’s hundreds of millions of people.
How does your computer model actually work?
Essentially, you can model one spill at a time based on environmental conditions based on how the waves are moving at a certain time, how the currents are, how the tides are, the temperature, the salinity. So, we have historical data ranging back years and years. And what we do is that we simulate spills over historical data thousands and thousands of times, and we can see an average or an expectation of where the spill might go, and we overlay those on top of each other to get a better idea of the potential spill area.
And what does your computer model show us about the FSO Safer software right now?
It’s very possible that the spill could flow north up into Saudi Arabia, it could go into Eritrea, it could go towards Djibouti and, of course, all along the western edge of Yemen, along with all of the fisheries in the region.
You mentioned earlier the lack of food and water at the ports. How would closing Yemen’s Red Sea ports stop Yemenis from having water?
It would stop them from having water in two ways. The first primary way is fuel. Fuel comes in primarily through those ports along the Red Sea, and most services in Yemen run on fuel. So, these are the water pumps, the pumps to create water from the wells or to truck the water from the ports to locations where people might need the water. So, that’s responsible for drinking water for around 8 million people. On top of that, there are desalination plants in the area that we modeled where the oil might reach those plants, contaminating them, preventing clean water from being produced.
Again, this has not happened yet, and we’re waiting to see what does happen to the Safer. In the midst of war in Yemen, what is the political component here?
So, it’s very difficult to actually disentangle the issue of the Safer between the conflict that’s going on in the region, because normally, if you have an oil tanker like this, you could just get the authorities to remove the oil off the boat. But the issue here is that it’s very difficult to negotiate the tanker when you have two sides at war.
Are you hopeful that there will be a scenario that is less consequential than an oil spill or an explosion?
Yes, I’m very hopeful. I think that the international community can and should feel very invested, that it’ll be a very strong humanitarian crisis if we do not act in time. And we’re hoping that this study adds a layer of urgency to people and telling people to act. So yes, I believe that we still have time. The spill can be prevented. And I truly hope that it is prevented.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.