Officials in Yemen’s western port city of Hodeida have expressed concern that the deserted Safer FSO vessel, filled with an estimated 1.1 million barrels of crude oil, is vulnerable to an explosion or a leak due to increasing temperature, high humidity, and maintenance failures. They say that ship’s boilers and coolers have been stopped owing to a lack of diesel fuel and the body of the tanker is beginning to suffer from corrosion following multiple failed efforts to unload its cargo of crude oil.
According to Yemeni officials, if an urgent rescue operation is not launched, the vessel could create an environmental disaster four times greater than the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in history.
In 2015, when the Saudi-led Coalition military campaign began in Yemen, Saudi Arabia prevented the oil-laden vessel from leaving Hodeida port and forced crew members to abandon it, leaving important maintenance work undone and creating what is essentially a floating time bomb. Since the vessel was abandoned, the Coalition has repeatedly prevented other ships from refueling the tanker with diesel to operate its generators used for cooling and to discharge gas emitted by the crude oil.
An oil spill in the Red Sea port would potentially destroy marine ecosystems and pose a threat to coastal tourism. Worst of all, officials say, it could leave millions of people in Hodeida district without clean drinking water. Experts at IR Consilium, a consultancy firm focusing on maritime law and security, warned that a spill in the area would force multiple desalination plants surrounding the Red Sea to close, depriving millions of access to drinking water.
Reports have warned that if a leak does take place, the fallout could potentially cover an area of 939 trillion square meters (approx. 366,000 square miles), meaning that the effects of the environmental disaster would reach beyond the Red Sea and extend into neighboring bodies of water. Based on current oil prices, the value of crude oil estimated to be stored aboard the Safer FSO is reportedly more than $70 million.
Moreover, an oil spill could also shutter Yemen’s Hodeida port, the gateway for 90 percent of the country’s food, medical and aid supplies, by strangling trffic on one of the world’s main waterways, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Such a spill would have a tangible impact on the world economy, according to a recent report published by the Atlantic Council.
The ship Safer is a large tanker with a built-in weight of 409,000 metric tons and a capacity of about 3 million barrels of oil. Owned by the Safer Oil Company (SEPOC), it first sailed in 1986, later becoming the world’s third-largest floating port for oil storage and unloading.
In 1988, SEPOC anchored the ship permanently off the Ras Essa oil port, 4.8 miles offshore from the Yemeni coast on the Red Sea, and connected it to the 430 km oil export pipeline originating from Marib. The ship was outfitted with equipment to allow the transfer of crude oil to other transshipment vessels.
The Safer soon became the main export terminal for light crude oil extracted from Sector 18 in the Safer region of Marib, east of Yemen’s capital city of Sana`a, as well as Sector 9 in the Malik area of the country’s Shabwa governorate. It is designed to undergo constant maintenance in order to prevent the build-up of explosive gases.
The Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis blame each other for failing to reach an agreement over the fate of the tanker. The Houthis want guarantees that the revenue from the oil aboard the tanker — estimated at more than $70 million, as noted above — will go to pay the salaries of Yemen’s public-sector employees and be used to restore power to the province of Hodeida.
The Coalition wants the revenue to be kept by Coalition countries, much as the oil revenues from Yemen’s southern regions where Saudi Arabia and the UAE are extracting oil from Shabwa, Balahaf and Hadramout and transferring the revenues to the National Bank in Saudi Arabia.
Mark Lowcock, the UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, pointed out that this was additionally frustrating because Houthi authorities had actually contacted the UN in early 2018 requesting assistance with the tanker and promising to facilitate their [UN] work. Lowcock stated:
If the tanker ruptures or explodes, we could see the coastline polluted all along the Red Sea. Depending on the time of year and water currents, the spill could reach from Bab el Mandeb to the Suez Canal — and potentially as far as the Strait of Hormuz".
In November of 2016, Coalition forces prevented the Safer Company’s Rama-1 ships from entering Rass Issa in Hodeida to unload 300 tons of diesel to supply the Safer FSO enough fuel to operate its generators and safety systems, according to a letter submitted by Middle East Shipping Company Limited to the Yemen Oil Company dated November 7, 2016.
Desperate pleas and warnings unanswered
Saudi Coalition countries and their local allies have recently revived the controversy surrounding the Safer FSO, claiming that rescue of the ship justifies a military campaign to seize control of the area and blaming the Houthis for ship’s condition. But according to Houthi officials, appeals to rescue the ship made by both the Houthi-led government in Sana`a and the Safer Company to the Coalition and to the international community have been ignored.
In 2016, the Safer Company explained to the Coalition the importance of supplying diesel to the floating tanker, stating: “The generation of electricity in the ship [is] made by steam turbines as desalinated water from the sea; steam is also the basis of the floating tank and to get it diesel must be available to run the boiler.” Safer added that supplying the ship with diesel is “the only solution to save the situation.” If the fuel is not supplied, the company expects a fire or explosion on the ship to lead to unprecedented pollution of the Red Sea.
For their part, officials in Sana`a have repeatedly warned of potential disaster in the Red Sea. On November 4, 2016. the General Authority for Maritime Affairs sent a letter to its Coalition counterparts confirming the need for the floating ship to be supplied with diesel to restart it and carry out the necessary maintenance work to avoid the occurrence of large-scale pollution from the leakage of oil to the sea, blaming Coalition forces for any consequences of a leak.
On December 21, 2016, Yemen’s Minister of Oil and Minerals asked leaders of the oil bodies and institutions to find a solution to the impending crisis. He repeated his warnings in May of 2017; the situation, however, continued to worsen. In April, 2017, the General Authority for Maritime Affairs announced that the cessation of most activities, including maintenance on the floating tanker, threatens a maritime disaster that will affect Yemen and the neighboring countries, but the Coalition showed no interest.
Mohammed Matouk, the director of Yemen’s Maritime Affairs Authority, said:
We are talking about a huge floating tanker that entered service in Yemen 30 years ago, which contains more than one million tons of oil. If an explosion takes place, many countries, including Saudi Arabia, will be hit with an environmental disaster".
Warnings by Yemeni officials have often been accompanied by appeals to the United Nations. On November 2018, Hisham Sharaf, the Foreign Minister in Sana`a, delivered a message to the secretary-general of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, calling on the international body to intervene in order to allow the maintenance of the ship. That plea has yet to be answered.