The floating “time bomb” threatening millions of Yemenis

How diplomatic stalemate could lead to an oil spill four times worse than the Exxon Valdez disaster.

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A rusting oil tanker which has been moored off the coast of Yemen for five years could crack open at any moment, releasing around 1.2 million barrels of crude oil into the Red Sea, according to the UN. A spill would release about four times more oil than leaked off the coast of Alaska in the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, one of the worst in history, further wreaking havoc on a country already beset by civil war and on the brink of famine.

The FSO Safer, owned by a Yemeni oil and gas company, fell into the hands of Houthi rebels early in Yemen’s ongoing civil war and has been without maintenance since 2015. Both the Yemeni government and rebels blame each other for the standoff. The Houthis have stalled on allowing the UN access to the ship, insisting that it is one issue of many to be included in negotiations between both sides. “The Houthis long preconditioned access to the ship on political outcomes that we do not have any control over, though we are making some progress on this,” a UN official told the New Statesman.

The FSO Safer tanker holds about 1.2 million barrels of oil
The consequences of a spill would be catastrophic for the Red Sea

However, Abdulghani Al-Iryani, a senior researcher at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, a think tank, cautioned that the internationally-recognised government of Yemen would also bear responsibility for a spill. It could have allowed the crude on the ship, estimated to be worth around $40 million, to be used to generate electricity in rebel-held territory, but refused to offer to commission a tanker to transport it ashore. “They think: This is our oil and our money,” Al-Iryani said, who also criticised the Saudi-led military coalition, which has intervened to prop up the government. 

The single-hulled ship, built in 1976, was commissioned before the Exxon Valdez spill, which led to most new tankers being built with double hulls, which reduce the likelihood of leaks. It was commissioned with a lifespan of around 25 years, 44 years ago. A UN report found that corrosive saltwater had begun to leak into the engine room in May, though the leak was fixed by divers from the company. The UN stressed, however, that until its technicians are offered access to the ship, it is at risk of spilling its cargo at any moment. As the Houthis have – thus far – refused outsiders access to the tanker, its precise condition remains unknown, the UN official said.

Where an oil spill from the Safer would go
In the July - September scenario the Al Hodeida port would be closed for 5-6 months, according to UN modelling. As a consequence, fuel prices would spike 200%, with health, water and sanitation services interrupted.

If the oil in the Safer spills, it would be an ecological disaster, affecting delicate coral reefs and marine life off the Yemeni coast. A slick could extend north into Saudi Arabia, modelling commissioned by the UN shows, or south into the narrow strait between Yemen and the Horn of Africa, one of the busiest shipping routes in the world, disrupting trade worth billions of dollars a year.

An oil spill would have humanitarian consequences too. It would lead to the shuttering of the port of Al Hodeida for weeks or months, through which most food to Yemen is imported. Yemen is already suffering from a devastating famine and the closure of the country’s main port would lead to further food shortages and a rise in fuel prices. Already, Dominic Raab, the UK Foreign Secretary, warned on 18 September that famine in the country "has never looked more likely". 

A toxic slick would also ravage the livelihoods of fishermen and affect the lives of perhaps 1.6 million Yemenis, mostly coastal dwellers, and millions more if it catches fire and emits plumes of toxic fumes. The ongoing Yemeni Civil War, moreover, would severely complicate subsequent international clean-up and relief efforts.

The Safer case bears disturbing similarities to August’s explosion in Lebanon, which killed nearly 200 people and devastated swathes of central Beirut. In both cases, institutional failures led to a known problem with potentially catastrophic consequences being ignored for years as a dysfunctional state shirked responsibility.

“The tragic explosion in Beirut last month underlines the urgency of resolving the Safer time bomb. A recent oil spill in Mauritius – which leaked only a tiny fraction of what is on board the Safer – makes this even clearer,” Mark Lowcock, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs told the New Statesman, adding that disaster is looming but entirely preventable.

Yemen, already in the throes of war and famine, cannot afford for the Safer to spill. As politicians bicker, saltwater is slowly eating away at the ageing tanker’s rusting hull. Ecological and humanitarian catastrophe beckons for a country already no stranger to tragedy.

Additional data reporting by Ben Walker.

Ido Vock is international correspondent at the New Statesman.

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