SAFER – The looming environmental and humanitarian disaster off Yemens’s shore

A 45 year old supertanker carrying 1.148 million barrels of light crude oil is decaying just 60 kilometers off the shore of the Yemeni port of Hodeidah, threatening the Yemeni population, Red Sea littoral countries and Red Sea ecosystems. The vessel was part of Yemen’s national oil infrastructure but fell under the control of the Houthis in 2015. Since then the tanker has gone largely unmaintained and its deteriorating condition increases the risk of leakage or explosion which could cause a disastrous oil spill. It is important that we use the awareness of such risks raised by the explosion at Beirut’s port and the oils spill in Mauritius as momentum for a resolution.

What is SAFER and what risk is it posing?

The FSO Safer supertanker is connected to Yemen’s oil fields in the northern Marib governate and was used to directly transfer oil to other vessels in open waters. The tanker has been caught between the two warring sides in the Yemeni civil war and fell under the control of the Houthi insurgency in 2015. Since then the tanker has been left unserviced causing corrosion and irreversible damages. At the end of May seawater entered the engine room and necessitated a shutdown of the engine used to keep air pressure in the tanks constant to prevent the buildup of flammable gases on the vessel. Even though the leak was patched provisionally a serious risk of explosion remains. The advancing corrosion also increases the risk of oil spilling from the tanker. If Safer ruptures, the Yemeni government expects an oil spill about four times larger than the Exxon Valdez catastrophe back in 1989. The UN warns that an oil spill would further exacerbate the humanitarian crisis currently prevailing in Yemen, causing a collapse of fishing communities on the Yemeni West coast and a contamination of water wells and agricultural land used by over 3 million farmers further inland. Further UN reports show that the oil spill would impair trade on one of the busiest commercial shipping routes which accounts for about 10% of the world trade and cause a closure of the port of Hodeidah for up to 6 months. As Yemen imports 80-90% of its basic needs, 70% of which enter the country through Hodeidah, this poses a serious threat. The oil spill would also affect other Red Sea littoral countries and threaten the livelihoods of approximately 30 million people.

Past and present attempts on resolving the issue

The internationally acknowledged Yemeni government initially called for UN support regarding the Safer issue in 2018. However, combat in the region around Hodeidah made the access to the vessel impossible. Only after the Stockholm agreement in December 2018 which negotiated a ceasefire between the warring sides in the region an advancement in the solution progress was possible. In 2019 both parties approved to deploy UN technicians to the tanker to assess the damage and do repairs, but the mission did not get final clearance to access the vessel by sea and was ultimately cancelled when the Houthis raised demands unrelated to the supertanker. Since then, however, increasingly since the entry of seawater into the engine room the UN has been negotiating for a resolution, mainly focusing on their call to grant experts access to the vessel in order to assess the damage and do initial repairs. The assessment is seen as a crucial first step to develop a more detailed plan to avert the looming catastrophe. The Houthis however demand any solution for Safer to be part of a wider peace plan including an easing of the sanctions on Houthi exports.

Conclusion

It is clear that both sides are politicizing the issue. The Houthis are using the threat of Safer as leverage to lift the embargo on exports while the coalition sees it as a clear example of bad governance by the Houthis and might also have environmental concerns. The decaying supertanker, however, not only threatens the Yemeni people and shores but is to be considered an international threat as wide areas of Red Sea ecosystems as well as roughly 30 million people and trade connections are affected by a possible spill. It is therefore necessary to depoliticize the issue and cooperate in removing the daily growing threat.

Policy recommendations

  1. The UN needs to work out a respond plan to the worst case scenario of an oil spill as the littoral countries have insufficient infrastructures and private companies will be reluctant to work on the edge of a war-zone.
  2. The momentum of heightened awareness created by the explosion in Beirut as well as the oil spill in Mauritius should be used to put pressure to act on the policymakers on all sides.
  3. The regionally affected states, including those indirectly affected by the impairment of shipping on the Red Sea (including Iran) should be educated on the threat of Safer and subsequently put pressure on the Houthis to cooperate with the coalition on initial repairs.
  4. The issue of Safer should not be embedded within a wider peace plan between the warring sides as it is to serious and urgent to be adjourned to an unspecified future date.
Author’s description:

Elisabeth Frei, is currently studying environmental system sciences with a special focus in economics at the Karl-Franzens-University in Graz.