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The Red Sea crisis has become a pressing concern largely due to its disruption of global trade. However, it also has far-reaching environmental impacts as the waters become a battleground. The clashes are adding to other environmental stressors that pose potentially irreversible damage to ocean health. The path for Africa is clear – it must act urgently.
On 27 January, Houthis attacked the Marlin Luanda British-linked oil tanker in response to United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK) air strikes against the armed group. The tanker caught fire and was severely damaged. This is just one of numerous attacks on oil tankers in the Red Sea since mid-December 2023.
The conflict is unfolding at a time of increasing pressure in the region due to population growth, climate change and coastal development. The Red Sea’s reef ecosystem provides food security and livelihoods for 28 million coastal inhabitants. Oil spills in these waters would cause severe damage, contaminating marine ecosystems, destroying vital coral reefs, and harming already overexploited fish populations. Clean-up efforts would be costly and time-consuming in a region lacking maritime safety capabilities.
Cooperation for climate action in the region is already hindered by complex geopolitical dynamics. For example, in August 2023, a United Nations (UN) mission conducted a ship-to-ship transfer of 1.4 million barrels of crude oil from the FSO Safer supertanker in Yemen. The tanker was at risk of corrosion-induced spillage due to a lack of maintenance since the Yemen war started in 2015. It could also have exploded if caught in the crossfire, posing a potential environmental and humanitarian crisis if the oil spilt into the Red Sea.
The UN mission averted the immediate spillage threat, but the Red Sea crisis has complicated efforts to remove the residue oil from the tanker, which could still explode. The coalition that sponsored the UN oil transfer – comprising Saudi Arabia, Netherlands, Germany, the US, UK and other countries – is implicated in the Yemen war. There is also a tussle for the tanker’s ownership between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia, which led the coalition that worked on the Safer.
Beyond immediate risks to the Red Sea, the conflict creates long-term concerns for the Western Indian Ocean region. The current threat to shipping affects the 6.2 million barrels of crude oil and refined petroleum products estimated to be transported through the Red Sea daily. Much of this traffic will be redirected around the Cape of Good Hope – a substantially longer route.
Also, the likelihood of an environmental disaster increases if the conflict intensifies and more ships travel around Africa – sometimes near regions notorious for maritime accidents. This is particularly the case if the Houthis use the Saudi-led coalition’s involvement in the Safer project to garner local support against the US’ role in the Red Sea Crisis.
Climate-induced weather patterns have further complicated maritime routes. Severe droughts have lowered the Panama Canal’s water levels, decreasing shipping traffic by nearly 40%. Traffic is being redirected around the Cape of Good Hope, necessitating immediate upgrades to maritime safety awareness and oil spill response capabilities in the Western Indian Ocean.
Accidental spills would cause severe economic losses and irreversible damage to the delicate marine ecosystem in a region lacking the means to respond to environmental disasters at sea. Higher bunkering volumes raise the risk of spills, leaks and explosions. Pollution from spills affects ecosystems, marine life and coastlines, and it is expensive and time-consuming to clean up.
Data analysis by the ZeroNorth shipping traffic platform shows that for every container ship diverted around the Cape of Good Hope, 2 000 more metric tonnes of carbon dioxide are released – 8.8 million metric tonnes over a year. Rising greenhouse gas emissions from shipping will exacerbate the global climate crisis and eventually contravene the international Paris Agreement’s efforts to reduce carbon footprints.
It is in Africa’s interests to play a leading role in mitigating the risk of a climate disaster. An event of this nature would spell a humanitarian crisis, potentially causing mass displacements for Red Sea-adjacent African states in a region already experiencing political tensions.
Shipping has entered the fray of international relations with economic, military and environmental repercussions, and Africa must show greater agency in safeguarding its maritime domain and interests. This can take many forms. For instance, Africa could drive diplomatic efforts to help resolve what is, so far, a military crisis.
The environmental risks necessitate better implementation of the International Maritime Organization’s regulations to reduce oil spills. Shipping companies could be mandated to contribute to UN-governed regional strategies such as the now inactive programme for the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. The programme aimed to mitigate oil spillage, advocate for cleaner, more sustainable fuels for maritime transport, and improve maritime safety protocols and training.
The role of African-led international maritime security accords and efforts must also be considered. The Djibouti Code of Conduct and its Jeddah Amendment can advance maritime safety through regional collaboration in tackling environmental issues in the Western Indian Ocean.
East Africa’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), through its Red Sea and Gulf of Aden task force, can formulate strategies for the area but this option has so far been overlooked. Uganda, an IGAD member and new chair of the Group of 77 + China developing country coalition, can use its position to steer Africa’s climate diplomacy efforts in resolving the crisis internationally.
Finally, through its Peace and Security Council, the African Union recognises the links between the environment and security. It should prioritise the environmental threats posed by the Red Sea crisis in its diplomatic messaging.
Africa must be proactive in multilateral climate risk efforts, as its oceans bear the brunt of environmental damage, with potentially severe humanitarian consequences. The Red Sea crisis highlights the urgent need for innovative solutions that balance maritime security with ecological responsibility.
This is Africa’s moment to lead with vision and determination, advocate for sustainable maritime practices, and set a global standard for environmental stewardship amid the conflict.
David Willima, Research Officer, Maritime, ISS Pretoria
Image: © Image: @indiannavy via X/Handout
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