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Time is running out to prevent catastrophe worse than Exxon Valdez in Yemen, says UN

21 July 2020

The UN Security Council has warned that war-torn Yemen and the wider Red Sea region face an unprecedented environmental catastrophe if United Nations experts are unable to gain access to the ageing – and now leaking – offshore oil storage vessel FSO Safer. The vessel contains around 181 million litres of oil and was found to be an explosion and oil spill risk in July 2019 but remains caught up in Yemen’s ongoing civil war.

Houthi rebels have so far prevented access to Safer- Image: Shutterstock
Houthi rebels have so far prevented access to Safer- Image: Shutterstock

Launched as a supertanker in 1976 and moored off Yemen’s west coast about 60 kilometres (37 miles) north of Hudaydah, the single-hull Safer has undergone no maintenance since 2015 when it came under the control of Houthi rebels at the start of Yemen’s civil war. It holds an estimated 1.148 million barrels of Marib light crude oil, or about four times the 260,000 barrels that spilled from the Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989.

“Time is running out for us to act in a coordinated manner to prevent a looming environmental, economic and humanitarian catastrophe,” said Inger Andersen, Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme during a video conference on July 15, adding that it is imperative that access be granted to the vessel to assess its condition and determine how its cargo can be safely off-loaded. Not only are Red Sea ecosystems and the livelihoods of 28 million people at stake, but an oil spill could aggravate the security situation in the region as vital resources become polluted, scarce and contested, she said.

Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, added that a leak on the Safer on May 27 that spilled seawater into its engine room “brought us closer than ever to an environmental catastrophe.” Fortunately, the leak was relatively small, and divers were able to contain it, but the fix is only temporary and water coming uncontrollably into the engine room could destabilise the Safer and potentially sink the entire structure. 

A promising development occurred in the week beginning July 6 when Houthi rebels confirmed in writing that they would accept a long-planned United Nations mission to the tanker that could take place in the coming few weeks.

“We understand that Member States are working to finalise funding to pay for the UN mission”, said Lowcock. At its outset, the mission would include a technical assessment and any initial repairs that might be possible. However, Lowcock noted that similar assurances were made by the Houthis in August 2019, only to be withdrawn the night before the United Nations team was due to board Safer.

Elaborating, Ms. Andersen said that either an oil spill from Safer – or an explosion and fire on board – could have a serious and long-lasting environmental impact, given that the Red Sea is among the world’s most important repositories of biodiversity. Citing a modelling exercise by independent experts at Riskaware Ltd. of the UK, she said that in a worst-case scenario, 100 per cent of fisheries along Yemen’s Red Sea coast would be affected within days, with a potential impact cost of $1.5 billion over 25 years. The closure of the key port of Hudaydah for five or six months could trigger a 200 per cent leap in fuel prices in Yemen for several months and food prices would likely double, prompting traders to shift operations to the port of Aden, which would struggle to cope with the extra volume. 

Were fire to gut the Safer and its cargo, more than 8.4 million people would be exposed to harmful levels of pollutants, Andersen added. While Yemen’s west coast would be worst affected, other Red Sea countries – including Djibouti, Eritrea and Saudi Arabia – would quickly be affected as well, in addition to the passage of more than 20,000 ships through the Red Sea every year. 

Responding to a spill would mean containing and recovering the oil at sea and cleaning up the shoreline, but it will take years for ecosystems and economies to recover. Neither the Government of Yemen nor neighbouring States have the capacity to cope, while private sector actors who would typically respond to such a disaster would be reluctant to deploy in a conflict zone, Andersen said. “To top it all, the COVID-19 crisis has relegated the oil spill issue further down the priority list of regional States,” she added. No effort should, therefore, be spared to first carry out a technical assessment of the tanker and initiate light repairs that could determine the need to offload its crude oil, tow the vessel to a safe location for further inspection, and possibly dismantle it in an environmentally sound way. “The immediate priority remains the same: assessment and light repairs,” Andersen said.

On July 14, Lowcock said an official request was presented to Houthi authorities, including details on the mission plan, personnel and technical equipment. A team of UN experts would be able to deploy within three weeks of receiving all the necessary permits.

Without prejudging the outcome of a technical assessment, industry experts believe that extracting the oil is probably the only way to remove the threat of a spill for good.

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