A ghost ship holding more than a million barrels of crude oil is rotting in the Red Sea. It could just sink. Or it could explode. And if either of those things happens, millions of people will be without water, on top of the environmental devastation, the Guardian reports. It sprung a leak once before, but was patched in May 2020, Al Jazeera reports. The Red Sea is salt water, but the area where the FSO Safer is slowly deteriorating is home to several desalination plants providing drinking water, and fisheries that provide food and income to millions in Yemen. The ship has been abandoned since 2017—so this isn’t a new problem. But a new paper in the journal Nature was released Monday detailing the full extent of the potential public health crisis a disaster four times the scale of the Exxon Valdez spill could cause.
"With nine million losing access to clean water and seven million losing access to food supplies, we’d expect mass preventable deaths through starvation, dehydration, and water-borne illness," one of the study’s authors, Benjamin Huynh, told Al Jazeera. The tanker Safer—named for a desert in central Yemen and not in an ironic nod to its current predicament—was stranded due to a coup and ongoing conflict in that country, per the New Yorker. It’s still home to a skeleton crew of seven, who can’t accomplish much in the way of maintenance and repairs, or preventing the buildup of toxic and flammable gases.
The Houthi soldiers occupying the region where Safer is stuck won’t let anyone siphon off the oil, and there are rumors that they have mined the area around it, adding to fears that the whole thing could blow up. If anything happens, the millions of Yemeni who are already in a precarious humanitarian situation could face famine. People in Eritrea and Saudi Arabia could lose access to clean water. And the coral reefs in the Red Sea, so far thriving despite warming seawater temperatures, could be destroyed, per the paper in Nature. (Read more oil stories.)