The condition of the decaying oil storage vessel Safer, floating north of Hodeidah, Yemen, is deteriorating daily, posing a major threat of an oil spill, the UN Security Council was told last week.
There is a concern that the dilapidated tanker might rapture causing an explosion and oil spill into the Gulf of Aden, triggering a massive environmental and economic catastrophe.
The Safer FSO, believed to be loaded with over 1 million barrels of crude oil, is officially owned by the Government of Yemen.
The vessel was once used as a floating storage and offloading terminal (FSO) for vessels loading crude oil from a nearby Marib-Ras Isa pipeline. It has been moored 7km off the Ras Isa port since 1988 and fell under Houthi control in 2015 after the Houthi forces captured the port. Since then, it has been used as a bargaining chip between Houthis and the Yemeni-government, backed by the Saudi-led coalition.
The one-time supertanker, built in Japan in 1974, sprung a leak in late May, flooding its engine room with seawater and threatening to destabilize the vessel and spill its cargo, said United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) chief, Inger Andersen.
She believes no effort should be spared to inspect the vessel’s condition and conduct light repairs despite the situation being aggravated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Andersen believes in the longer term, the best option would be to offload the oil from the ship and then tow it to a safe location for inspection and dismantling.
For now, the international community must come up with a response plan should an oil spill occur, she said, emphasizing that the Safer could release four times more oil than the notorious Exxon Valdez disaster did, off Alaska in 1989.
Neither war-torn Yemen nor its neighbours have the capacity to manage and mitigate the consequences of such a huge spill – and private salvage operators will be reluctant to take on a job inside a conflict zone, she said.
Yemen has been torn apart by more than five years of conflict between the forces of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi – supported by a Saudi-led international coalition – and mainly Houthi militia, for control of the Arab nation.
Special Envoys of the UN have been calling for access to the Safer for almost two years, to inspect the state of the vessel and avert a possible environmental disaster, which would jeopardize the survival and livelihoods of those living in the surrounding areas.
Despite some initial pushbacks from the Houthis to allow access to the ship, UN humanitarian affairs chief Mark Lowcock said that the Houthi authorities confirmed two weeks ago that they would accept a long-planned UN mission to the tanker.
As disclosed, the mission will hopefully take place in the next few weeks.
“We have, of course, been here before”, he said, recalling that Ansar Allah – the Houthi militia’s formal name – gave similar assurances in August 2019, only to cancel the UN mission the night before it was to go out to the vessel.
“The Ansar Allah authorities have an important opportunity here to take steps that will spare millions of their fellow citizens from yet another tragedy,” said Lowcock, who leads the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
“We are eager to work with them to do this.”
Andersen added that based on the modelling exercise by independent experts it is estimated that if the Safer spills its cargo between July and September, given prevailing winds and currents, it would affect 100 per cent of Yemen’s fisheries within a matter of days.
As explained, the closure of the nearby key port of Al Houdeidah for five to six months would meanwhile trigger a 200 per cent increase in fuel prices, while food prices – in a country that must import nearly everything it needs – would likely double.
The port is close to one of Yemen’s marine protected areas, home to mangroves and coral reefs.
While the west coast of Yemen would be hardest hit, the impact would quickly extend to Djibouti, Eritrea and Saudi Arabia, affect demand for seafood from the Red Sea and impact on the more than 200,000 ships that pass through every year, she warned.
“Even if the response activities were to be initiated immediately after the oil spill, it would nonetheless take years for ecosystems and economies to recover,” she pointed out.