Yemen in Focus: Safer oil tanker spill would be 'disastrous for the world'

Yemen in Focus: Safer oil tanker spill would be 'disastrous for the world'
This week we focus on the Safer tanker 'ticking time bomb', which environmentalist groups warn would be disastrous not only for Yemen, but for the world.
5 min read
22 July, 2020
The tanker is just a few miles of Yemen's coast [Getty/Satellite image(c)2020 Maxar Technologies]

The decaying oil tanker abandoned off Yemen's coast with 1.1 million barrels of crude on board would "totally destroy" Yemen's marine environment if it ruptures into the Red Sea, a local environmental group told The New Arab.

The 45-year-old FSO Safer, anchored off the port of the Houthi-controlled Hodeida, risks annihilating biodiversity on more than 115 Yemeni islands, including wiping out all its natural habitats, the head of Yemen's Holm Akhdar [Green Dream] environmental group, Mohammed Alhakimi told The New Arab.

The oil spill, already anticipated to be "catastrophic" by the United Nations, will also eradicate 850,000 tons of Yemen's fish stocks and will negatively affect the lives of more than 76,000 Yemeni fishermen who fish off the port city.

"The danger of these threats is increasing because the Safer tanker, which is a floating platform for exporting crude oil, has been punctured in one of its pipes, which has led to a sea water leakage to its engine room, and since it has been moored since 2015 without maintenance within 5 miles of the Yemeni coast, its iron structure has been subjected to corrosion and rust," Alhakimi said.

The FSO Safer, anchored off the port of the Houthi-controlled Hodeida, risks annihilating biodiversity on more than 115 Yemeni islands

"This increases the risk of leakage of crude oil from storage tanks," the Yemeni environmentalist warned.

"Another danger lies in the possibility of exposure to explosion due to the oxidation process that may be caused by the air that occupies the empty space inside the storage tanks of the crude oil. The tanker has a storage capacity of 3 million barrels of oil but only currently carries less than half of its cargo, which increases the risk indicators," Alhakimi added.

The tanker is owned by the state's Safer Exploration and Production Operations Company (SEPOC) but has been left unmaintained for five years - around the same amount of time since the Saudi-led coalition militarily intervened to fight off Houthi rebels in Yemen, in support of the internationally-recognised government.

Despite numerous requests, the Houthi rebels - the only group with access to the floating vessel - have blocked attempts by the United Nations to inspect the decaying tanker until last week when they finally agreed to an inspection in principle, following international pressure.

In 2019, the rebels also accepted an inspection request, only to then cancel a UN mission from Djibouti at the last minute, prompting accusations by Yemen's government which believes the Houthis are using the tanker as yet another bargaining chip in the conflict.

Top Houthi leader Mohammed Ali al-Houthi said on Twitter last month that the rebels want guarantees the vessel will be repaired and that the value of the oil on board is used to pay salaries of their employees.

The market value of the oil is now estimated at $40 million, half what it was before crude prices crashed, although experts say poor quality could push it even lower.

Yemeni Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed has said the money for the oil should be spent on health and humanitarian projects.

Speaking to The New Arab, Alhakimi said Yemen's conflict, including the warring factions involved, have proven to be an obstacle that have for years prevented competent authorities from dealing with this issue.

"The conditions of war and conflict in Yemen, the sharpening of the political division, and the differing political accounts between the parties to the conflict, have hindered for years the maintenance process and the arrival of the technical teams to repair the tanker. With it being located in the vicinity of the firing lines, and in light of continued fighting, environmental issues like the Safer tanker become invisible issues on all sides of the conflict," Alhakimi said.

Recent reports have warned an oil spill from the Safer tanker could affect the fishing industry for as long as two-and-a-half decades, while noting it would be far more catastrophic than the recent 20,000 tons of diesel spill in Russia's Ambarnaya or even Alaska's 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster.

Yemen's neighbouring countries, including Saudi Arabia - a key party to the devastating conflict - Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea and Somalia, would undoubtedly reap their own share of the disaster, but a spill along this strategic maritime route would most likely affect trade across the world.

The international community understands that the Safer disaster is a threat to the world's environment, not just to Yemen. It will become a global problem

"The international community understands that the Safer disaster is a threat to the world's environment, not just to Yemen. It will become a global problem. The Red Sea region is an important transit corridor for the global trade movement. In the event of an oil spill, it will hinder the movement of ships and hinder the docking in the ports along the Red Sea," Alhakimi warned.

"The world must rescue Safer and provide technical assistance to contain the disaster, while also persuading the parties to the conflict to make more concessions. Urgent action is needed, especially since the parties to the conflict recently announced their agreement to allow the United Nations team access to the tanker and assess the damage," Alhakimi urged.

Read more: Yemen in Focus: UN's lax approach 'emboldens Houthi violence'

Hodeida port is a lifeline for Yemen with 90 percent of all supplies coming through it, but the city has also been a vital frontline for the conflict, with all warring factions vying for its power.

More than 100,000 people have been killed in Yemen since the Saudi-led coalition intervened to push back the rebels in March 2015. Yemen is the Arab world's poorest country, already devastated by conflict and malnutrition, and also faces the coronavirus pandemic that its decrepit health system is ill-equipped to handle. 

Any disruption to Hodeida's port would inflict further hardship on a country which is again on the brink of famine after long years of conflict.

Yemen In Focus is a regular feature from The New Arab.

Sana Uqba is a journalist at The New Arab. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Sanasiino