What might Red Sea mining bring to Saudi Arabia and Sudan?

Mining companies say Red Sea extraction will bring employment to both countries Copyright: Flickr/NASA Marshall Space Center

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Deep-sea mining in the Red Sea may bring in jobs for scientists. But how will any benefits be shared and what will it do to biodiversity? Paula Park investigates.

[KHARTOUM/LONDON] A Canadian company expects to complete a study, within a year, to gauge the feasibility of extracting metals from hydro-thermal basins some 2,000 metres deep in the Red Sea, which could boost Saudi Arabia and Sudan’s access to metals, and create high-paying jobs.

The Vancouver-based Diamond Fields International Ltd. (DFI) says the study will show whether metals can be extracted safely and profitably.

A paper published in March 2011 by the Kiel Institute for World Economy estimated the total value of known seabed minerals in the Red Sea basins to be up to US$8.21 billion, and stated that extraction had been shown to be feasible.

The paper was based on sediment samples taken from the Red Sea’s Atlantis II Deep basin in 1970, when the Sudanese government hoped to start Red Sea mining in collaboration with Preussag AG, a German mining company. However, when global ore prices dropped the early 1980s, Preussag abandoned its mining plans and later donated the Atlantis II sediment cores to GEOMAR — Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel.*

Recent hikes in ore prices and high demand from emerging economies — including China and India — have renewed interest in exploiting deep-sea metal deposits. In 2010, DFI and the Manafa International Trade Company of Saudi Arabia, obtained a licence from the joint Saudi–Sudanese Red Sea Commission to mine the basin.

Potential benefits

The feasibility report is the next step in the bid to secure funding from Saudi commercial banks to finance the Atlantis II joint mining venture, according to Ian Ransome, DFI’s chief executive officer.

The project will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and, if all goes to plan, mineral extraction is expected to start in 2014, DFI said. For both the Saudis and Sudanese, Atlantis II would increase the availability of metals such as copper, zinc and silver, with resources representing "a potentially substantial source of income", according to the 2011 paper. Estimated silver resources in Atlantis II are 3,000 higher than Sudan’s production in 2008, for example.

Salah Bashir Abdullah, a geology professor at the University of Khartoum, in Sudan, tells SciDev.Net the project makes economic sense to Sudan, particularly as the country lost around two thirds of its petroleum reserves after the secession of South Sudan in July last year.

But the mine will bring more than direct profits for both countries, said DFI’s chairman and director, Wayne Malouf.

The project’s proximity to the Saudi and Sudan coasts means transportation costs would be low and is one factor in determining the profitability of the mine. Another benefit would be the mine’s potential to generate jobs for skilled workers, he says.

"The more locals you hire, the more goodwill you generate," says Malouf.

Malouf envisions employing Sudanese scientists trained in terrestrial geology and "training them up" to work in the marine basin.

The University of King Abdulaziz, in Jeddah, on the Red Sea coast, runs a marine geology programme in partnership with the Kiel Institute, to train scientists. Malouf said he would like to work with the university to create a training programme for Saudi and Sudanese scientists and workers. Ransome and Malouf emphasised that the project will prioritise giving jobs to Saudi and Sudanese scientists.

But one insider, who did not want to be named, says that the disparity between Sudanese and Saudi Arabian expertise may lead to uneven split of management responsibilities on the project.

In Sudan, university research has been mainly in terrestrial geology, in part to study the oil reserves in South Sudan, the person says. In contrast, scientists at Saudi institutions have worked solo and in partnership with German scientists to explore the marine geology and the ecology of the Red Sea.


Interest in deep-sea mining has gone up following a hike in the demand for raw minerals

Flickr/gnews pics

That may put Saudi scientists in a position of authority over their Sudanese counterparts, creating tension, and there is no requirement in the two countries’ agreement that project management be split fifty-fifty.

Doubts among academics

Some Kiel scholars have doubts about how the mining proceeds would be shared between two countries and question the ability of either to protect the marine environment adequately. Under the UN Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS), Sudan, as a poor country, would receive some preferential treatment when it comes to the division of resources.

But Alexander Proelss, professor of public law at Trier University questions whether Sudan will have any special advantages, given the structure of the joint Red Sea Commission and the agreement between the parties.

"In theory, the two states could agree on a fair and just distribution of the benefits arising out of the future exploitation of the Atlantis II Deep," Proelss tells SciDev.Net. "However, the treaty by which the two states agreed to establish the commission follows a rather formalistic approach, i.e., the benefits will essentially be shared between the two states on a 50-50 basis."

The two governments formed the Sudanese-Saudi Red Sea Commission in 1974 and signed joint development agreement for the basins. These agreements are common in deep-sea exploration because the national boundaries below the sea are not easy to determine.

But the Kiel scholars question whether the agreement is enforceable, and say the work of the Red Sea Commission, in particular, has not been transparent.

Since the 2011 paper was written, "no work has been done by that commission," says Proelss, a co-author of the 2011 paper. There is no evidence the commission has monitored the Red Sea environment in a publicly accountable manner, he added.

But Malouf defends the commission, saying that it has a clear monitoring role. For example, he says, the commission licensed the project and requires the partners to submit quarterly reports.  The Sudanese government has also asked DFI to ensure the hiring of Sudanese scientists, Malouf adds.

Environmental impacts

The Atlantis II feasibility study, to be completed next year, is the first of several assessments, including an environmental impact study and monitoring plan, that will be undertaken before the joint-venture can begin extraction, Ransome says. (The study will also reassess the extent and value of the mineral sediments.)

DFI has already examined Atlantis II’s basins for living organisms that could be disturbed by mining, Ransome said.

Red Sea coral

Experts say mining should not disturb Red Sea biodiversity

Flickr/Moon Fish

The feasibility study will test the pumping system’s capacity for bypassing bacteria living in brine pools above the mineral beds, "we don’t want to disturb the bacteria there," says Ransome.

A paper published in PLoS ONE last month (20 August) found that the microbial communities living in a sulphur-rich section of Atlantis II sediments are "likely to play a dominant role in the cycling of methane" a greenhouse gas, and sulphur.

"Those microbes that are present that result in the oxidation of methane…are very important to understanding global warming," Rania Siam, an associate professor at the American University in Cairo who coauthored the paper tells SciDev.Net.

An environmental impact study should ensure that mining does not disturb organisms living in the sediment, the brine or the water column above the brine pools, she adds. "There has to be some kind of mechanism to ensure that there’s no disruption of the entire area, the brine pool, and the surface sea water," she says.

Both Abdullah and Khalid Alnoor, an environmental expert from Sudan, tell SciDev.Net that care should be taken to avoid using toxic substances, such as mercury, when mining and processing the minerals, so as not to affect biodiversity.

Alnoor says that one way to minimise environmental impacts would be to transport raw materials from the Red Sea and process them later on land.

A Hamburg University group of scientists performed an environmental impact study for the German company, Pruessag AG when it considered excavating in the 1970s. Horst Weikert, a biologist on the team, says their report, published in 1981, focused on organisms in sea water at 1,000 metres in depth, and only in the area of the basins themselves. The group found little biological diversity in these areas, but a full investigation would need to also assess the impact mining would have on other parts of the Red Sea.

"There needs to be more investigation to make sure that our assessment is right," he tells SciDev.Net. "It’s really a very special system amongst the world oceans."

Link to 2011 paper [620kB]

Link to 1981 environmental assessment report [16.8MB]

Link to full PLoS ONE paper [1.71MB]

Additional reporting by Hyder Mohammed.

*This article was corrected on 18 September to say the sediment cores were donated to GEOMAR — Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, and not Kiel Institute as previously stated.