HURGHADA/CAIRO: Home for pristine diving spots and almost 200 oil drilling platforms, the Red Sea is a battlefield for two of Egypt’s pivotal sources of income, tourism and petroleum.
A month after dispatches of oil covered Hurghada’s shoreline, authorities are still contesting the size of the spill, the source that leaked the oil and the effect it had on the environment.
However, what scientists seem to agree on is the need to strike a balance between conserving Egypt’s rich ecosystem and extracting its energy reserves.
“Each governmental agency [sic] they have their own vision; oil production would like to produce oil; tourism would like to use the area for tourism; fisheries would like to fish. How? This is the main problem we are facing in the Red Sea,” argued Mahmoud Hanafy, marine biology professor at the Suez Canal University.
Hanafy said that the conflict arises because an “intensive” petroleum industry exists within a sensitive habitat that is threatened by drilling platforms and inevitable slicks.
“Non-living resources one day will be finished, but living resources…will be forever. So on the long term, even from the economical point of view, I think the opportunity…to conserve these resources is very valuable, not only the local and the regional level, but for the international level,” said Hanafy.
While oil seems to be the main polluter of the Suez Gulf, pollution has also taken its toll on Egypt’s marine life over the past few years.
Magdi Nasrallah, professor and founding chair of petroleum and energy engineering at the American University in Cairo, told Daily News Egypt that as a concerned country, Egypt should closely monitor drilling companies in an effort to predict and act to avoid future leaks.
“We cannot afford to pollute this area. We need to carefully control [operating platforms] through continuous monitoring,” added Nasrallah, suggesting that the government outline penalties and taxes for those who breach regulations.
Meanwhile, on the recent leak, Managing Director of the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Agency (HEPCA) Amr Ali said, “The long term effect on marine life is going to be catastrophic.”
Fishermen first noticed dispatches of oil in the sea on June 18, but the leak is believed to have started two days earlier, although no authority was notified. The current caused the oil to wash up on the beaches of Hurghada and El Gouna, covering an estimated 30 kilometers of Egypt’s Red Sea shoreline and temporarily disrupting activity at surrounding resorts.
The exact size and source of last month’s spill remain disputed, however.
“I don’t think that the amount detected [last month] constitutes a major spill,” said Nasrallah.
Meanwhile, Ali estimates that the oil leaked amounts to 8,000-10,000 barrels in total.
For its part, the Ministry of Petroleum issued a press release stating that waste dumping and residual oil stains on rocks caused the recent appearance of oil on the shoreline, a claim contested by environmental activists.
Petroleum Minister Sameh Fahmy also said that he was mulling a cut down on the number of oil platforms in the Suez Gulf.
“I have full confidence in what comes out of the petroleum ministry,” said Nasrallah, suggesting that it is possible the spill did not originate from an oil platform.
He argued that because the Red Sea is an international pathway, “it is expected that with heavy traffic you would have some spills.”
Meanwhile, an engineer at the Marine Center for Combating Pollution in Hurghada, a body which operates under the Ministry of Petroleum, who took part in last month’s clean-up efforts, said, “The spill could have come from anything; it could be a boat and it could be a platform,” maintaining that “we cannot speak about the spill.”
He asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Environmental activists in Hurghada believe that the oil came from an offshore drilling platform which HEPCA identified as belonging to PetroGulf Misr, an allegation they supported with some video footage that was posted on the HEPCA channel on YouTube. Daily News Egypt, however, was unable confirm when this footage was taken.
Several attempts to acquire a statement from PetroGulf Misr failed as the company refused to comment on the alleged incident.
Conservationists admitted that the government acted quickly to clean-up the shores, however, some questioned the government’s claim to have plugged the spill without identifying its source, triggering speculation about its transparency and ability to deal with possible bigger spills in the future.
While local hotel managers have said the tourism sector was not notably affected by last month’s spill, environmentalists predict that on the long run, what attracts tourists to Hurghada’s diving resorts will ultimately vanish.
“If you go to the northern islands, you can find the accumulation of frequent spills from 50 years. To clean all these beaches, it needs a national project,” Hanafy said, referring to a divers’ haven which he said is a nesting ground to one-third of the world population of wild eye seagulls.
Meanwhile, the struggle to use up the Red Sea’s resources through responsible means is of utmost importance, according to Ali.
“If you don’t do this, your territorial waters will never be taken seriously. These are the last lines of defense for Egypt, our natural resources and waters here,” he said.
“We only have colored fish and colored stones that God has given us, and we’re destroying the resources. It doesn’t make sense.”