Ticking time bomb

One of the largest oil tankers in the world is rusting away in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen. On board, it has over 140,000 tonnes of crude oil stored. An environmental and humanitarian crisis is about to happen if countries don’t act quickly.

Words by Nane Steinhoff

Moored in the Red Sea, around 4.8 nautical miles off the coast of Yemen, the FSO Safer has made headlines around the world for a few years – for all the wrong reasons. The floating oil storage and offloading vessel holds over 1.14 million barrels of crude oil which makes it one of the world’s largest oil tankers. Built in Japan in 1976, it has been moored in the Red Sea and has been left exposed to humidity and corrosion with little or no maintenance since Yemen’s civil war started in 2015. It is not insured and has been left without maintenance for the last seven years.

On board the rusting tanker is a small crew working desperately to keep the tanker afloat and secure and they managed, so far, to prevent a major catastrophe. Despite their efforts however, leaks have happened in the past. The most serious one occurred in May 2020 when seawater entered the engine room. It took five days to stop the leak.

Time reported that experts suggest that FSO Safer might become the “biggest man-made oil-related disaster ever recorded” if action isn’t taken swiftly. As the inert gas systems, pumps and fire-fighting equipment are not functioning, the tanker could cause a major oil leak or an explosion that could have catastrophic impacts.

If all the oil on board was to spill, the disaster would be four times bigger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill. It would cause widespread environmental damage to the fragile marine environments of the Red Sea, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Yemen and affecting neighbouring countries. Such a spill would force the closure of the local port of Hodeidah through which 68% of the aid and supplies flow. It could impact food supplies for 8.4 million people, drinking water for 10 million people and the livelihoods and health of 1.7 million fishermen and coastal communities.

Under the surface, the Red Sea is a diver’s dream come true. It is home to extensive seagrass beds, vast mangrove habitats, over 300 colourful coral species and more than 1,200 fishes, of which a whopping 14.7% are endemic. Dugongs, manta rays, various shark species and dolphins all thrive in this seawater inlet. Furthermore, according to the UNEP, “the Red Sea is increasingly being identified as a potential climate refuge for coral reefs, because of the relatively higher resilience of its corals compared to other parts of the world”. Additionally, the Gulf of Aden, a deepwater basin that links the Red Sea to the Arabian Sea, has some of the highest levels of biological productivity in the world.

In short, an oil spill could be disastrous in an environmental sense, as well as in a humanitarian sense as Yemen still remains “one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world, with around 23.7 million people in need of assistance” due to an ongoing civil war, according to UNICEF. Since the conflict escalated in 2015, “less than half of health facilities are functioning, and many that remain operational lack basic equipment”, reports UNICEF.

An oil spill would exacerbate the crisis and would directly affect the people of Yemen. Not only does oil contain toxic and carcinogenic chemicals that can harm one’s health, but small coastal fishing communities will most likely feel the biggest impact through long-term contamination of fishery resources.

The only way to prevent an oil spill is to transfer the oil from the FSO Safer to another tanker, and although this is a challenge, the technology and expertise exist to undertake this operation. After months of negotiations, a deal was reached between the UN and the De Facto Authorities, the Houthis, in Yemen to undertake the transfer of oil under UN coordination. And on 11 May, countries met at an UN emergency pledge conference to commit funds for the transfer of the crude oil on board the FSO Safer to prevent the crisis. Experts believe that US$80million is needed for transferring the crude oil, while this operation will have to happen before October of 2022 when winds and currents will become too strong to undertake it.

Ghiwa Nakat, Executive Director at Greenpeace MENA, said: “We are witnessing an oil disaster in slow motion. Everybody agrees about what needs to be done about the Safer and the urgency to act, but only a handful of countries so far have committed money to the salvage operation. The US$80million needed to make the Safer safe is nothing compared to the US$20 billion estimated cost to respond to a spill, plus the incalculable impacts for the livelihoods of coastal communities and the fragile environment of the Red Sea.”

“It is much less than the US$405billion a year given by G20 governments to fossil fuel corporations as subsidies. The funds needed are also much less than the profits made by the major oil companies. It is time political leaders put money where their mouth is and prioritise action to prevent a major humanitarian and environmental disaster,” Nakat continued.

On 11 May, countries such as the Netherlands, France, Finland, Germany, Qatar, Sweden, the UK and others committed US$33 million to the mission, a figure that only just covers under half of the required US$80 million needed to get the oil transferred. The funds agreed on should be enough to launch the rescue operation in the coming weeks. However, US$80 million are needed to ensure that the salvage operation is completed safely and in time by October. The full amount would cover costs including a chartered tanker, inspection of the FSO Safer, bringing in the necessary equipment, transfer of the oil, and cleaning of the Safer’s tanks.

Commenting on the UN conference outcomes, Nakat said: “Enough delays: countries must put their money where their mouths are to ensure the oil on board the Safer is transferred to safety, swiftly and securely. Governments took promising steps, and they need to keep building on this. While some countries like France, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Qatar, Sweden, the UK and others have committed to provide the funding needed, according to the United Nations, the full amount required has not been pledged, and with each day the Safer situation deteriorates. As we wait for the funds to become available, it is crucial that oil spill response equipment such as containment booms be deployed in case of a spill and that communities are informed about the dangers.” While US$80 million might sound like a lot of money, it is a drop in the ocean compared to the subsidies that governments give to oil corporations.


Photographs by Ocean Image Bank / Brook Peterson, Unsplash, Ocean Image Bank / Anett Szaszi, Ocean Image Bank / Cinzia Osele Bismarck, Ocean Image Bank / Renata Romeo.

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