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Where has the beach gone?

Red Sea, Black Beaches

An oil spill is undermining marine life in Ras Ghareb and threatening its residents’ health
Egypt’s Ministry of Environment Stands Powerless While Oil Companies Evade Responsibility
Watch a 2 minute summary of the investigation

As the sun rises, 42-year old Fatima Gharib peers through her window, inhaling the mist of the sea before heading to the nursery where she works in the Red Sea city of Ras Ghareb. This beautiful moment is tainted by the oil spill staining the shoreline; seeping into the once golden sand.

The darkened hue of the shoreline is no different to other coastlines outlining the city, and is the result of ongoing oil spills from company's working at sea. An environmental catastrophe encircles Fatima and the children at her kindergarten, and threatens the tens of thousands residing in the region. The leaks have turned the shore into a landfill for wildlife carcasses, and the sea into a residual layer of fish contaminated with toxic compounds that may well find their way to the dinner tables of the town’s residents. As for the beaches, their once golden shorelines and transparent blue waters, are now blackened and congested with thick oil residue.

Coral reefs act like marine life incubators, and those inhabiting the Red Sea shores, are absorbing oil spill after oil spill amid weak protection from environmental agencies, and the failure of oil companies to comply with environmental protection laws and marine exploration. This environmental catastrophe is aggravated by accusations flying between the Ministry of Environment and its oversight bodies on the one hand, and the General Petroleum Company (GPC) on the other hand, which this investigation found to be accused as the primary polluter.

Pollution encircles Fatima and her nursery children

Coral reefs act like marine life incubators, and those inhabiting the Red Sea shores, are absorbing oil spill after oil spill amid weak protection from environmental agencies, and the failure of oil companies to comply with environmental protection laws and marine exploration. This environmental catastrophe is aggravated by accusations flying between the Ministry of Environment and its oversight bodies on the one hand, and the General Petroleum Company (GPC) on the other hand, which this investigation found to be accused as the primary polluter.

petrol drop
Oil spill incidents
Between 2015-2019

The Environmental Affairs Agency registered 25 oil spills in the city of Ras Ghareb between 2015 and 2019. The agency pinned the responsibility of 22 of them on the General Petroleum Company and accused it of violating the laws protecting the marine environment. However, in several of the cases, the company was not held accountable, and instead took advantage of the court ruling “collective indictment.” The lengthy nature of the litigation process has also benefited the company since the visible contamination thread eventually diminishes, making it hard to trace the source of the leak.

At the same time, the results of the analysis of three samples showed that the oil spill fingerprint that leaked between December 2018 and February 2019 matched the outputs of this same company’s fields and wells by over 99%. ARIJ obtained a copy of the results of these analyses, which contradict the company's defenses in the cases brought against it, claiming that the fingerprint of the oil spill in question is identical to that of other companies.

Head of the GPC, Nabil Abdul-Sadiq, rejects the results of these tests, and accuses the Environmental Affairs Agency of abandoning its responsibility in investigating oil well leaks, claiming that the agency lacks the necessary technology to determine who the actual polluter is.

جهاز شؤون البيئة سجّل 25 واقعة تسرب بترولي بمدينة رأس غارب بين عامي 2015 و2019. في 22 منها، حمّل الجهاز الشركة العامة للبترول مسؤولية التلوث على امتداد الشاطئ، واتهمها بخرق قوانين صون البيئة البحرية. على أن الشركة خرجت بالبراءة في عدد من تلك القضايا، مستفيدة من "شيوع الاتهام"، وفق قرارات المحاكم. كذلك طول أمد التقاضي، الذي تضمحل خلاله ملامح التلوث فيصعب ربطه بالمتسبب.

بموازاة ذلك، أظهرت نتائج تحليل ثلاث عينات تطابق بصمة الزيت - المتسربة بين ديسمبر/ كانون الأول 2018 و فبراير/ شباط 2019- مع مخرجات حقول الشركة ذاتها وآبارها بنسبة تتعدّى 99 %. تتناقض نتائج تلك التحاليل - التي حصلت معدّة التحقيق على نسخة منه - مع دفوع الشركة في جميع القضايا المرفوعة ضدّها، على قاعدة أن "بصمة" الزيت موضع الشكاوى تتماهى مع تسربات من شركات أخرى.

على أن رئيس الشركة العامة نبيل عبد الصادق يرفض نتائج الفحوص ويتهم جهاز شؤون البيئة بالتخلي عن دوره في تدقيق البحث عن الآبار المسربة للنفط والافتقار إلى أدوات قياس حديثة لتحديد المتسبب الحقيقي.

While the GPC maintains that the Environmental Affairs Agency “only has unproven charges”, ARIJ examined the evidence in the documented records. The majority of the cases filed end with the acquittal of the only government company from among 35 companies contracted with the Egyptian government to drill for oil in that region. The company was able to prove the similarity of the oil fingerprint of its fields with that of other companies working in the same region, reinforcing the “collective indictment” among oil companies and throwing doubt on the compatibility of the company’s oil fingerprint with the oil leaked on the Red Sea’s beaches.

Fatima and her neighbours are accustomed to dead marine life washing up on the shores of the beaches surrounding their homes.

ARIJ collected random marine creatures and samples of soil and water in several regions and had them tested in a laboratory. The results showed a rise in pollution levels to above international standards, threatening the marine environment and the residents of the surrounding area.

A puffer fish that died in an oil spill

The city of Ras Ghareb lies 314km southeast of Cairo. By the end of 2019, the city was inhabited by 41,526 people, according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics.

67% of the total production of crude oil and condensates in Egypt comes from this region. According to Minister of Petroleum Tariq Al-Mulla, the production is currently estimated at 630,000 barrels per day. The GPC alone produces 37,000 barrels per day from the Ras Ghareb fields, as its current manager, Nabil Abdul-Sadiq, confirmed to ARIJ.

The Red Sea and the Gulf of Suez upon which Ras Ghareb overlooks enjoy biological diversity, as they house the following species:

species of fish
species of coral rock
species of turtles
species of birds
species of invertebrate animals
species of algae Ancient coral reefs
Source: Egyptian Ministry of Environment

ARIJ conducted a tally of the volume of oil spills from 2015 to 2019 by using data from the Egyptian Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Petroleum.

Petroleum spills and reports against the General Petroleum Company


In the past three years, the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency has submitted 15 communications to the public prosecution. In these, it accuses the GPC of being behind a crude oil leak. The Ras Ghareb beach, which stretches for 75km along the Gulf of Suez, is the most prone to oil spills.

Article 52 of the Egyptian Environmental Law prohibits companies that are authorised to explore and extract marine oil from discharging any pollutant resulting from drilling, exploration, testing wells or production into the sea. It commits them to using safe means which do not harm the aquatic environment. Article 90 of the law imposes a fine of no less than 150,000 pounds ($3,175) and no more than 500,000 pounds ($14,174) on those who violate this law.

On January 3, 2017, Chairman of the Energy and Environment Committee in the House of Representatives, Hamada Ghallab submitted a briefing request to the ministers of Environment, Petrol and Tourism on the oil spills in Ras Ghareb and the Gulf of Suez. Two and a half years later, in August 2019, the briefing request was repeated by Representative Tareq Metwalli after five new incidents were recorded.

Outcomes of the investigations by the committee

“It has become normal,” describes Fatima, on the negligent way official entities handle pollution in the city, which is affecting the lives of people living near the sea. It is also impacting the lives of fishermen whose livelihoods depend on catching and selling fish.

Empty Nets

Samir Sabri has been working at sea for 15 years, since he was 18 years old. Fishing is the only vocation he is trained in. However, the polluted beaches have deprived him of his ability to earn his daily bread. Samir asserts that the pollution even eliminated certain types of marketable fish, and has destroyed nets and fishing equipment.

Samir's complaint is confirmed by the environmental inspection reports of one of the leak sites on November 19, 2018. “After each new leak, oil residue collects and forms into tar balls. These impede the movement of boats and the ability to fish with nets, as well as spoiling the beauty of sandy beaches.”

Interviews with six seasoned fishermen highlight that fish scarcity in the Ras Ghareb coast dates back five years, aligning with the increased frequency of petroleum spills. Head of the Fishermen's Cooperative Association in Ras Ghareb, Ali Hussein, estimates that there are about 1,000 fishermen distributed across 43 boats, and the livelihoods of these fishermen depend on what the sea offers them.

Hussein estimates that the number of commercial fish has declined by 80%, and highlights the complete disappearance of certain types of fish including “snappers, corals, silk snappers and groupers.”

“The overall number of fish has declined, but on days of a spillage it gets to a point where the revenue from fishing is far less than the operating cost. For example, a fisherman spends 800 pounds ($50), but after two days of hard work he returns with fish whose price in the market does not exceed 100 pounds ($6.5) due to the fact that the fish had either fled the area or died in the spill.”

Oil destroys Samir's nets and deprives him from his catch of his day

The toxicity of oil components varies, depending on the life cycle of the fish. Larvae are the weakest and most affected. Fish are also in danger if they are in the upper parts of the water, according to a book published in 2008 by the Egyptian Ministry of Environment and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

The oil layer blocks light from aquatic life and impedes photosynthesis, the effects of which infiltrate into the food chain. This was documented by environmental officials when they examined dead spiny sea urchins in the leakage site on March 3, 2019. The report indicates that oil spills damage seashells, coral reefs, seaweed and algae.

Older Than the Pyramids

For four years, Mohammad Kamal and his fellow fishermen used their mobile phone cameras to capture photos and videos of small dead fish known as “fry” next to the fishermen's boats. These larvae and small fish live in the coral reef “incubator” as the reefs become colonies for living creatures that grow and stick to the bottom.

In April 2014, a study by researchers at the National Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries estimated that 61% of the coral cover in Ras Ghareb would die. The study described the oil spill onto the marine environment of the city to be “the most dangerous” one impacting Red Sea cities.

Muntaser Al-Hamadi describes coral reefs as “Cities within the water, inhabited by small fish.” Al-Hamadi supervises a study on the effects of oil pollution in the region. He says that the reefs are estimated to be 10,000 years old, which means that they are older than the pyramids. Their death led to a decline in the number of fisheries. The expert explains that even if the oil spills stop, these reefs need 50 years to recover and re-grow.

Oil Fingerprint

The General Director of the Environmental Affairs Agency in the Red Sea Abu Al-Hajjaj Nasr Al-Din argues that there is an oil fingerprint linked to each oil well. Nasr Al-Din explains, “Once the leaked oil samples are analysed, the Environmental Affairs Agency reveals the company that is causing it and commissions the company to clean it. Alternately, it assigns the mission to the governmental institution Petrosafe (the Petroleum Safety and Environmental Services Company). The cleaning process lasts from one to four days, depending on the amount of pollution.

After each leak, complaints are reported to a joint committee made up of representatives of bodies affiliated with the Ministry of Environment (Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA)), nature reserves, the General Administration of the Ministry and a member of the Environmental Measurement Laboratory in Suez). The committee studies the circumstances surrounding the complaint, takes samples from the site, and prepares a report on the area and the quantity of the oil.

The oil print is a distinctive feature of each oil type containing a unique mixture of substances that determine its physical and chemical properties. These include the colour and viscosity formed by the diversity of geological conditions and time periods that contribute to its formation. The oil fingerprint is determined by a complex process, using gas chromatography for molecular fossils or crude oil biomarkers.

Kawthar Hafni, the head of the Central Administration for Disasters and Crises until 2019 asserts that the cleanup process cleans the beaches completely. Hafni is the current Chief Advisor to the Ministry of Environment and believes that any “blackening” of the beaches is due to “historical and cumulative pollution.”

In contrast to Hafni’s views, the coordinator of the National Plan to Combat Oil Pollution, Ayman Abdul-Wahid, confirms that the oil-polluted environment does not return to its previous condition since the cleanup process targets surface pollution on the beach. Abdul-Wahid argues, “What leaks into the marine environment cannot be combated and affects creatures in the water in the long run.”

On July 5, 2019, ARIJ detected a new leak that started in the southern part of the General Petroleum Company to the beach of Dai Al-Qamar and the southern region. On the 14th of the same month, the Environmental Affairs Agency accused the General Petroleum Company of having caused this leak.

On August 19, 2019, and after completing the cleanup operations, ARIJ took samples of fish, water, snails, and soil from different places along the coast of Ras Ghareb for analysis at the Suez branch of the National Institute of Oceanography laboratory.

On September 9, 2019, the results showed that the ratios of toxic petroleum substances in fish were higher than the ratios and limits allowed for human consumption, in accordance with the standards of the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety which sets the limit at 1 migroramme per gramme.

sea img
Water sample 1
141.66 mg/l
100 mg/l
sea img
Water sample 2
120.48 mg/l
100 mg/l
sea img
Soil sample 1
2382 mg
2000 mg
sea img
Soil sample 2
2740 mg
2000 mg
sea img
Fish sample 1
3.70 mg
1 mg/l
sea img
Fish sample 2
4.54 mg
1 mg
sea img
Fish sample 3
5.46 mg
1 mg
sea img
A snail sample 1
54.00 mg
1 mg

Source of permissible limits: USEPA, European Environmental Protection Agency, European Earth Sciences EGU - French Agency for Food Safety.

The Environmental Affairs Agency warned in communiqué No. 40 that fish contaminated after an oil spill are not suitable for human consumption. The agency reported that the most persistent oil compounds are transported through the food chain and stored in the liver and fatty tissues of marine animals. This has long-term effects that do not appear in humans until years later.
Walaa Shaban is a professor of Marine Sciences in the Faculty of Science at Al-Azhar University. He supervised a study that monitored the impact of oil pollution on soil and gastropods on the coast of the Red Sea. Shaban explains that people feel lethargic and tired if they eat fish that contain aromatic compounds. People also experience shortness of breath and sensitivity in the nerves and spinal cord.

Ingesting hydrocarbon compounds such as gasoline and kerosene leads to irritation of the throat and stomach, as well as pneumonia and difficulty in breathing. It also affects the central nervous system. Other compounds within petroleum substances affect the immune system, liver, spleen, kidneys and lungs. They impact the development of the fetus as well. Benzene and benzo[a]pyrene also cause leukemia.
Source: The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry

We confronted Ayman Abdul-Wahid, the coordinator of the National Plan to Combat Oil Pollution branching from the Ministry of Environment, who rejects the hypothesis of the transmission of pollution to humans in Ras Ghareb: “The city is based on petroleum activities, and there are no fishing or touristic activities on its polluted beaches.”

Contrary to his claims, ARIJ obtained security permits for fishing on beaches that were subject to frequent oil spills, including the aforementioned Ras Ghareb one.
The Dai Al-Qamar beach has been subjected to seven oil spills in the past five years.

The Ras Ghareb corniche has had 13 oil spills in the past five years

The beach in the southern region has witnessed two oil spills in the last five years.

Untraceable Sources

The Egyptian Environmental Law requires oil-extracting companies to inform the Ministry of the Environment as soon as a new spillage is detected. However, this does not happen in the city of Ras Ghareb; instead, it is the residents, the fishermen and border guards who perform this task as documented by the city’s administrative records.
Hussam Musa is a resident of Ras Ghareb, who developed a digital association with the impacted city residents to publish live pictures with every new spill in order to alert the environmental and control authorities.

The Egyptian Environmental Law requires oil-extracting companies to inform the Ministry of the Environment as soon as a new spillage is detected. However, this does not happen in the city of Ras Ghareb; instead, it is the residents, the fishermen and border guards who perform this task as documented by the city’s administrative records. Hussam Musa is a resident of Ras Ghareb, who developed a digital association with the impacted city residents to publish live pictures with every new spill in order to alert the environmental and control authorities.

Firas and his group "Ras Ghraib Lighthouse" tackle pollution with a cameraphone

Negligent Maintenance

The former head of the Central Administration for Disasters and Crises, Kawthar Hafni, attributes the leak to “negligence in following up on and maintaining the crude oil transport pipelines from water fields to reservoirs on the beach. This is in addition to negligence in maintaining these water fields and reservoirs on the beach.”

Hafni’s records and history in the Ministry of Environment until 2019 show that she accuses the General Petroleum Company of “negligence in dealing with oil leaks.” She notes that she has issued official complaints documenting the violations which reached both the Prime Minister and President of the Republic.

Between 2015 and 2019, the Environmental Affairs Agency issued 22 official statements against the General Petroleum Company.

On the other hand, the Head of the public company, Nabil Abdul-Sadiq, refutes the claim of negligence in maintenance and confirms that his company injects delivery lines with chemicals that prevent corrosion and isolate the external borders against sea water.
Mohammad Al-Alfi, a pseudonym, is on the Ministry of Petroleum’s cleanup team that handles the leaks. He describes the pipes as “usually looking rusty and worn out.” This source requested that his identity remain withheld so he could keep his job. He has been participating in leakage cleanup for two years now.

However, oil leaks occur even during periodic maintenance operations: In January 2018, the Rescue and Environmental Protection Society detected a heavy oil pollution to the south of Ras Ghareb which resulted in the replacement of old oil pipelines.

Polluters Go Unpunished

ARIJ obtained the results of the analysis of three oil fingerprint samples leaked between December 12, 2018 and March 7, 2019. All analyses point to the offshore Amer platform of the General Petroleum Company with identical matching ratios that exceed 99%.

First report: In December 2018
the samples matched by
99.3% / 99.6%
Second report: In December 2018
the samples matched by
99.6% / 99.5%
Third report: in March 2019
the samples matched by
99.5% / 99.4 % / 99.6% / 99.6%

In his response, Head of the General Petroleum Company Nabil Abdul-Sadiq, says that the analyses do not all 100% correspond and therefore, they are not sufficient evidence against the company. He adds that the report did not specify precisely which company platform caused the leak, and that therefore they are erroneous analyses that leave room for doubt.

Abdul-Sadiq questions the validity of the fingerprint, pointing out that it is prone to change. A single well does not produce oil with a fixed oil fingerprint for the whole duration of its operation. He demands that the Environmental Affairs Agency update each company’s fingerprint at least every three months. He notes that the company’s oil fingerprint currently registered with the Ministry is inaccurate.

Vice-president of the Suez Branch of the National Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries (NIOF), Khalid Al-Moslahi, rejects this idea. He explains the failure of a 100% match in the oil fingerprint by the possibility of the samples mixing with sea water which would affect the chemical compounds. He asserts that 99% is identical to the source and is sufficient to prove that the companies caused environmental damage.

The reporter obtained detailed copies of certain cases, which show that the layers from which the public company produces oil are the same ones from which the Gulf of Suez Petroleum Company produces oil, il, which is why the General Petroleum Company won three cases filed by the Environmental Affairs Agency. According to a statement by the company’s president, two in 2018 for misdemeanor in Hurghada were appealed, and another for misdemeanor in Ras Ghareb was appealed in 2017.

Collective Indictment

In conclusion, collective indictment leads to the acquittal of the General Petroleum Company as environmental agencies fail to prove charges against it. This is clear in the Ghareb misdemeanor case No. 2494 in which the company is accused after a leak occurred on 9/11/2015. The reasons for the company’s acquittal decision read as follows: “The Environmental report pinned the responsibility to the General Petroleum Company on the basis that the analyses showed the highest matching rate of 99.7%, but this does not exonerate the other companies near the beach site. Therefore, the court deems this to be a collective indictment among all these companies.”

Maher Rashwan, director of environmental management in the Environmental Affairs Agency in the Red Sea branch, attributes the provisions of the company’s acquittal to the lengthy litigation process. The environmental expert delegated from the Ministry of Justice inspects the leakage site six months to a year after the incident, and therefore does not find any traces of pollution as recorded in the environmental records and by public prosecution.

The General Petroleum Company addressed the public prosecution in an official letter on December 19, 2018, responding to the accusation of having caused the oil spill: “The unequivocal determination of the source of the pollution does not only depend on the fingerprint of the crude oil but is confirmed by the extent of follow-up on the mobility of the slick, using programs and mobility analysis technology, and this was not conducted by environmental agencies.”

As for Samir, he has left Ras Ghareb in search of livelihood in distant waters, hoping that his nets will help in capturing food for his children. Meanwhile, kindergarten children roam freely around Fatima who warns them against going to the polluted beach, and Hussam and his colleagues are using technology to try to alert environmental agencies to the dangers of frequent pollution.

On the horizon, rocks remain stained in black, the golden sand is hidden under blocks of hardened oil, and fish lay dead, or have deserted the Red Sea reefs altogether. The greatest danger however, is awaiting residents of the area, in the form of a meal of fresh fish that a fisherman may unknowingly bring them after a new oil spill.

  • Investigator
  • Iman Munir
  • Supervision
  • Mohamed Abu Deif
  • Video
  • Islam Mossadaq
  • Photography
  • Ali Zari’i
  • General supervision
  • Saad Hattar
  • Development and Design
  • ARIJ Team

This investigation was carried out with the support of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ).