There is a floating time bomb just five miles off Yemen’s shore. Oil storage tanker FSO Safer has been stranded and almost completely abandoned in the Red Sea for nearly half a decade. It is seriously deteriorated, with rust extending all over the ship’s hull and the equipment onboard.
The ship contains more than one million oil barrels. Some believe it has constantly released flammable gases during this time, meaning that these gases could generate a huge explosion that endangers the community in the area.
This will not be the case if it starts to spill large amounts of oil into the sea. However, this could cause an environmental catastrophe that would affect the lives of millions in the region.
The FSO Safer is an environmental disaster waiting to happen. If nothing is done, 1.14 million barrels of oil could leak into the Red Sea. Houthi Authorities must allow UN inspectors to access the ship and remove the oil. pic.twitter.com/1TKBRk8V7t
— Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (@FCDOGovUK) July 9, 2020
The FSO Safer is deteriorating every day, upping the risk of an oil spill that would wreck ecosystems and livelihoods for decades, said United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) chief, Inger Andersen.
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, the Council was told.
“Prevention of such a crisis from precipitating is really the only option”, Ms. Andersen told the Council, which with the exception of Tuesday, has been meeting via video-teleconference since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Despite the difficult operational context, no effort should be spared to first conduct a technical assessment and initial light repairs,” she said.
In the longer term, she added, the best option will 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.
A chain of events
How did this ship end up in this state? The FSO Safer was built in 1976 in Japan and sailed the world’s oceans for approximately 10 years as an oil tanker.
In 1987, it became a stationary storage facility for oil company Safer and taken to a location offshore Yemen. With a total capacity to store three million barrels, the Safer became a useful but not particularly special structure.
When the Yemen war began in March 2015, few people were thinking about the tanker. Houthi rebels quickly seized it, as well as many other company assets. However, unlike the onshore facilities and pipelines, the FSO Safer is now in a particularly precarious situation. Stranded at sea, it is rapidly deteriorating as the days go by.
Imagine over one million barrels of oil seeping into the Red Sea – ports unusable, fisheries decimated, Yemeni people without critical aid, and imports severed. We call on the Houthis to live up to their commitments and facilitate @UN assessments of the Safer oil tanker now. pic.twitter.com/lgbQLB86Pl
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) July 16, 2020
Not one solution in the horizon
The Yemen conflict has turned out to be long and complicated, with no end in sight. The internationally recognized government, currently supported by Saudi Arabia, cannot access the FSO Safer. The ship remains under Houthi control.
Analysts say that the Houthis are holding the tanker hostage. They want to keep it to threaten the coalition forces in the Red Sea.
The FSO Safer should have been replaced by an onshore storage facility years ago, but the project was never completed. By 2015, millions of dollars per year were spent in accumulated maintenance costs for the ship.
A time bomb
The houthi strategy of using the Safer for a potential trade could be disastrous. If the gases onboard catch on fire, experts are afraid that it could cause a huge blast. This could be potentially deathly for any nearby person or ship.
Experts say that the explosive gases accumulated in the tanks should be periodically neutralized. Since the beginning of the civil war, there has been little to no maintenance.
The 1.15 million oil barrels onboard are Marib Light, a type of crude that easily mixes with water. Estimates indicate that if this oil starts to flow toward the Red Sea, it could cause an greater disaster than the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.
Moreover, the Red Sea is a particularly high-salinity body of water. Because of this, the ship’s hull is corroding faster than it would in other parts of the world.
Hence, the Safer presents a significant threat for nearby coral reefs, marine life and also desalination plants in the region that provide clean water to nearby nations, including Saudi Arabia.
A spill from the decaying oil tanker, SAFER, off the #Yemen coast could directly affect 1.6 million Yemenis – many of whom already depend on humanitarian aid. I briefed the UN Security Council on the situation. The UN remains ready to address the problem: https://t.co/tP94gojQKn pic.twitter.com/zBsGVekV5h
— Mark Lowcock (@UNReliefChief) July 15, 2020
War worsens the situation
The United Nations have participated in the efforts to neutralize the situation and have attempted to organize an expedition to approach and assess the ship. However, this has yet to occur, UN Under-Secretary General of Human Rights Affairs Mark Lowcock explained.
Experts are not only concerned that the natural corrosion will mean the end of this ship. It could also happen that it is used by an aggressor seeking to attack nearby facilities or tilt the power balance in the area. The conflict in the region is notoriously unpredictable, Lowcock added.
There is still time
In case there is access to the ship, it would not be too difficult to extract the oil and practically eliminate the threat of catastrophe.
If the ship were in conditions to navigate, it could be taken to a port to extract the oil. Alternatively, if the Safer cannot be transported, the crude could be removed on site and relocated.
Without this or any other corrective operation, it will eventually lead to a catastrophe.
While several parties are concerned or discussing what to do with the FSO Safer, it remains stranded at the Red Sea, with many thousand tons of oil on board. A giant problem that is begging to be fixed before it is too late.
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