On Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council held a meeting on the condition of the single-hull FSO Safer, a 46-year-old converted tanker moored off Yemen. Marine safety and environmental experts warned that she is deteriorating rapidly and poses a serious risk to the Red Sea ecosystem.
The Safer contains about one million barrels of oil, and if released in quantity, it would produce a world-class spill event. The tanker has not had a functioning inert gas system in years, raising the risk of an explosion. She developed a leak in her engine room in May, creating an additional stability risk.
Safer sits just off the port of Hodeidah in Houthi rebel-held territory, and she has been minimally maintained for at least five years. Houthi (Ansar Allah) forces have not permitted UN inspection teams to come on board, despite repeated appeals.
“Despite the difficult operational context, no effort should be spared to first conduct a technical assessment and initial light repairs,” said UNEP head Inger Andersen. “Time is running out for us to act in a coordinated manner to prevent a looming environmental, economic and humanitarian catastrophe.”
For a long term solution, Andersen called for lightering off the vessel’s oil, then towing the Safer away for scrapping. If action is not taken, the vessel could release up to four times the amount of oil that the Exxon Valdez dumped into Prince William Sound.
“The Ansar Allah authorities have an important opportunity here to take steps that will spare millions of their fellow citizens from yet another tragedy,” said Mark Lowcock, the head of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Yemen is already home to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. After five years of war between the Yemeni national government (backed by a Saudi-led coalition) and a Houthi-led militia, the country’s economy is in ruins and its population relies heavily on relief aid for survival. Given the circumstances, Yemen is little-prepared to deal with a major environmental disaster, the UN warns.
Andersen cautions that if the Safer should spill its cargo, all of Yemen’s fisheries could be affected. A spill could also hamper operations at the port of Hodeidah, the primary entry point for food supplies for Houthi-held northern Yemen. The spill’s impact would also extend to nearby Djibouti, Eritrea and Saudi Arabia.
Previous appeals for UN access to the FSO have not been granted, and overall trust between Houthi forces and the UN is at a low point. In February, the United Nations reduced aid to Houthi-controlled regions because Houthi militias were allegedly blocking or restricting humanitarian missions. “[Houthi] authorities asked NGOs to sign agreements that would not be consistent with humanitarian principles,” said Lowcock at the time. “It has also been-suggested that NGOs pay a two percent tax to fund the authorities’ aid coordination body. The situation is unacceptable.”
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