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Rusty oil ship off Yemen threatens an ecological catastrophe

September 7, 2022

The Red Sea is under imminent threat of a massive oil spill from an aged Yemeni tanker. The UN's plans to avert the disaster have stalled for lack of funding.

A satellite image shows the FSO Safer tanker moored off Ras Issa port.
The FSO Safer threatens to pollute the whole region if autumn and winter storms break or sink the vessel off Yemen's coast. Image: Maxar Technologies/AP Photo/picture alliance

The derelict oil tanker FSO Safer, moored some five miles (6 kilometers) off the Yemeni coast in the Red Sea and used as an oil storage facility, is a floating environmental catastrophe waiting to happen.

The vessel, which could break apart or explode at any moment, holds 1.1 million barrels of crude oil.

That's equivalent to 48 million gallons (218 million liters) of oil or four times the amount that was spilled in the Exxon Valdez oil disaster near Alaska in 1989.

A oil spill from the FSO Safer would destroy coral reefs and other sea life in the Red Sea, jeopardize hundreds of thousands of jobs in the fishing industry, and cut Yemen off from supplies of food and fuel, the United Nations and other organizations have warned. 

Preventable disaster

However, it is possible to prevent what the US Special Envoy for Yemen, Tim Lenderking, calls a "looming disaster."

Technically, the solution is straightforward: For an initial cost of $80 million (€80.8 million), the oil could be transferred over the course of four to five months from the FSO Safer to a temporary vessel.

Once a long-term storage vessel is found, the oil could be transferred again.

View of the rusty FSO Safer tanker from the stern
The oil storage ship FSO Safer was abandoned in 2015 due to Yemen's civil warImage: Umweltorganisation Holm Akhdar/dpa/picture alliance

As for the FSO Safer (FSO stands for floating storage and offloading unit), the tanker could be sold as scrap metal to offset some of the operation's total cost, estimated at around $144 million. 

The problem is that neither the funding for the first stage is completed, nor are reliable political agreements in place for the oil transfer to take place.

So far, the United Nations, with the support of The Netherlands and US Envoy Lenderking, has drummed up $70 million in contributions from various countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Germany.

Private companies have also been called upon to donate, which resulted in a $1 million contribution from the Dubai-based Yemeni HSA Group in late August. 

"We are the closest we have ever been to addressing the threat," Lenderking told DW. 

Yet, without the total sum of $80 million for the first step, the UN-coordinated plan remains on hold even though the situation is becoming increasingly critical. Experts widely agree that the tanker probably won't survive the rougher seas of the coming autumn and winter. 

Map showing Yemen and the location of the tanker FSO Safer

Politicization of the vessel

Domestically the situation is also anything but hazard-free. FSO Safer belongs to  a Yemeni company, the Safer Exploration and Production Exploration Company, while the warring Houthi militia controls Hodeida, the port closest to the ship. 

Following UN negotiations, the Houthi militia agreed in March this year to the first stage of oil transfer and signed a memorandum of understanding.

The document isn't legally binding, however, and some doubt whether the Houthis will keep the agreement. In the past, the Houthis have thwarted several UN attempts to inspect or repair the vessel, or called off interventions at the last minute. 

Meanwhile, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, a Houthi military leader, has regularly posted on Twitter that he holds the internationally recognized Yemeni government and their allies "fully responsible for any disaster resulting from the Safer tank." 

Yemen is in its eighth year of a civil war between the Iran-backed Houthi militia and the Saudi-backed internationally recognized government. The country is now divided into the Houthi-controlled north and the government-controlled south. 

Exacerbating a humanitarian disaster 

Meanwhile, the war has plunged the country into the world's worst humanitarian catastrophe. The vast majority of Yemenis rely on international aid to fend off famine.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February has further exacerbated the situation in Yemen, which used to import up to 45% of its wheat from Ukraine and Russia. 

An oil spill from the FSO Safer would restrict food aid for more than 8.4 million people in Yemen by disrupting access to the ports of Hodeida and Salif, through which "almost 70% of aid is brought into the country," said Julien Jreissati, Program Manager for Greenpeace Middle East and North Africa.

Potable water for about 10 million people in Yemen would also be threatened since desalination plants on Yemen's coast could be affected, he added.

In addition, such a spill would completely close Yemeni fisheries, which support 1.7 million people, Jreissati said.

Yemen's fishermen told DW that they are scared of an oil spill as their livelyhood depends on fishing.
Yemen's fishermen told DW that they are scared of an oil spill as their livelyhood depends on fishing.Image: Safia Mahdi/DW

The Red Sea at risk

The impact would also be felt beyond Yemen and its coastal waters. 

"The entire Red Sea region's drinking water supply could be contaminated," Jreissati said. 

According to a recent Greenpeace study, desalination plants on the Red Sea coasts of Eritrea and Saudi Arabia could be affected within three weeks after a spill.

The Red Sea is home to pristine coral reefs and an incredible array of marine life, and an oil spill in what is one of the world's most biodiverse oceans would spell disaster both ecologically and economically. 

If the tanker sinks, experts are also worried about the possible effects of the resulting oil spill on international shipping routes throughthe Suez Canal. An estimated 12% of global trade passes through the Suez, which connects the Mediterranean to the Red Sea.

It's estimated that it would cost around $20 billion to mop up the FSO Safel oil spill, which is significantly more than the $80 million needed to transfer the oil out of the tanker.

For Tim Lenderking, it is obvious that "we all have a stake in protecting this vital waterway and prevent the compounding of a humanitarian catastrophe." 

'Absurd and irresponsible'

Yemen expert Jens Heibach, a research fellow at the Hamburg-based GIGA research institute, says that it is in the Houthis' "best interests" to allow the oil transfer to take place and "to avert this catastrophe."

"The population in the areas held by the Houthis would suffer the most," he told DW.

He says the Houthis could also benefit in the future if the FSO Safer is replaced by a fully financed vessel that could store oil from Yemen's Marib oilfields. 

"It is certainly important to the Houthis to keep this hub under their control and theoretically make profits later on," Heibach said. 

He believes, however, that the FSO Safer and the catastrophe it poses is being used as leverage for imminent peace negotiations.

Since the beginning of last Ramadan, Yemen has experienced the longest, albeit fragile, peace agreement sincethe war began in 2014.

The current truce agreement ends on October 2. 

For Heibach, one thing is certain: "The FSO Safer is part of the negotiating mass. Given the situation, it is obvious that everyone is hoping to get the best out of the situation while keeping their fingers crossed that the whole thing doesn't go to pieces in the meantime. This is completely absurd and irresponsible."

Edited by: Kate Hairsine

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa