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Oil spill darkens Egyptian tourist town

Ahead of the Cop27, an oil spill in Egypt highlights the country’s inability to deal with environmental disasters.
Tourists ride camels on the shores of the town of Dahab, southern Sinai Peninsula, Egypt, May 12, 2017.

DAHAB, Egypt — More than a week after crude oil washed up on the shores of Dahab on Aug. 14, patches of oil can still be found along the coast. The small tourist town on the Gulf of Aqaba in the southern Sinai Peninsula is just an hour from Sharm el-Sheikh where the COP27 will be held in November. It is also a water sports destination and because of its incredible coral reefs, sea life and the nearby Blue Hole, a true Mecca for divers. Every morning during low tide a group of volunteers tends to the oil patches. During the first days after the oil spill, volunteers showed up to help with the cleanup. Now it is down to a handful of volunteers who bravely defy the scorching sun.

In most spots, the oil is mixed with the pebbles on the beach, which makes it hard to remove it completely. The trick is to sift the pebbles through your fingers, Nadine Wahab, one of the organizers of the cleanup, told Al-Monitor. That way, it is easier to separate the sticky oil clumps from the sand. The area is an official natural protectorate, therefore the bigger stones cannot be moved as it would disturb the ecosystem, meaning the ones covered in oil are left polluting the beach. Wahab and the other volunteers collect the hazardous waste in big plastic water bottles that they then leave on the side of the road for a government company to pick up.

It is not exactly clear where the oil spill originated from, but it most likely came from a ship that crossed through the port of Aqaba. Experts call it a minor spill. There are conflicting reports about the size of the spill, ranging from 700 square meters to 11 tonnes. "But no matter how small, oil is toxic and detrimental to the environment," Ahmad Droubz from Greenpeace told Al-Monitor.

Once an oil spill occurs, it is only possible to recuperate a small percentage of it, Droubz said. Inevitably it will stay in the water, leading to the death of marine organisms, affecting sea life in general and entering the food chain. Even coming into contact with a small amount of crude oil can cause nausea and dizziness in humans. When cleaning up it is essential to wear protective gear that covers the body, preferably high boots, thick rubber gloves and a mask.

"The first day of the cleanup we had people attending the cleanup barefoot," said Wahab, who runs the sustainable initiative Eco-Dahab. She and other members of the local community then stepped in to provide protective gear for the volunteers.

Even though the community outreach in Dahab has been great, the first response to the oil spill did highlight several issues. In a Facebook post, Greenpeace called upon the government for more transparency. "The first 48 hours after an oil spill is the key time for intervention and clear communication," Droubz noted. "But the approach the Egyptian government took was one of minimal transparency and communication about what was taking place on the ground."

He added, "It also exposed our vulnerability, lack of preparedness and mobilized capacity on the ground."

Wahab noted that in the first days, only a handful of government workers were cleaning up alongside the volunteers.

The secretary of the parliamentary Planning and Budget Committee submitted a questionnaire to the Ministry of Environment, asking, "Why was the Ministry of Environment delayed in dealing with a crisis of such severity? Where are the ministry's tools to deal with such crises, such as oil spill disposal equipment? Especially in light of the country's readiness to receive a global event such as the Climate Change Summit."

He continued, "Why is every step taken to solve the crisis in a different governorate? In a more detailed sense, why are there no laboratories to analyze oil slick samples in every coastal governorate? This is in order to avoid delays in knowing the source of the pollution and who is responsible for it, then quickly dealing with the situation, and taking legal measures against the party causing the pollution."

What it comes down to, experts say, is a lack of funding and consequently a lack of resources. Droubz and lawyer Malek Adly from the Egyptian Committee for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR) both told Al-Monitor that the money for the government's response to environmental disasters comes out of a violations fund, i.e., companies that commit environmental violations have to pay a fine that is allocated to the violations fund.

However, in Egypt, this legislation never really came into force, Droubz said. Not only is the enforcement of the law by the environmental police insufficient, there is also an issue with how the judiciary perceives environmental violations, he said. "For example: if the law says that a factory has to pay a fine between 5.000 and 1 million Egyptian pounds [$260-$52,000] if it violates their emission standards, the judge will very often put the minimal penalty in place."

According to an ECESR report, Law No. 4 of 1994 criminalizes polluting the marine environment. Article 50 states that those involved in the oil transportation and those working in the extraction of oil are responsible for alerting the authorities of an oil spill accident, as well as stopping the leak and removing the damage. That goes for any ship, whether it comes from a country bound by the international Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic or not. The ECESR report also states that it is "this article whose texts are often not applied despite the repetition of the offense, and the ease of identifying the culprit."

The result is that the Egyptian Ministry of Environment is always underfunded when it comes to adequately responding to environmental disasters and is therefore not prepared.

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