Environment |

Disaster looms off Yemen's coast as Houthis prevent maintenance of Safer oil tanker

By Nabil Abdullah al-Tamimi in Aden

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A still from a video released by the Yemeni government to illustrate the risks from a potential oil spill from the Safer tanker moored off Yemen's coast, uploaded July 14th, 2019. [Yemen Prime Minister/Twitter]

As the conflict in Yemen rages on, the FSO Safer oil tanker moored off the coast of Yemen in the Red Sea has fallen into a dire state of disrepair, threatening potential catastrophic environmental, economic and humanitarian consequences.

The Houthis (Ansarallah) and their backer, the Iranian regime, are to blame for not allowing maintenance on the oil tanker, Deputy Minister of Human Rights Nabil Abdul Hafeez told Al-Mashareq.

"God forbid, if a catastrophe occurs, it would affect not only Yemen but all the countries of the region," he said.

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The FSO Safer is moored about eight kilometres off the coast of Yemen. [Photo courtesy of Conflict and Environment Observatory]

A ticking time bomb

The deserted floating storage and offloading facility (FSO) -- which contains 1.1 million barrels of crude oil -- has been described as a "floating bomb" as its hull has been corroding and its barrels are thought to have been steadily releasing flammable gasses over the past five years.

An explosion on the FSO Safer could sink all nearby ships and cause a massive oil spill and environmental disaster, further exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, experts warn.

The UN attempted to send a technical team to visit the ship in July 2019 to assess the extent of the damage, but the Houthis blocked those efforts.

Depending on the time of year and water currents, a spill from the tanker could reach the Suez Canal and potentially as far as the Strait of Hormuz, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Co-ordinator Mark Lowcock told the UN Security Council.

The Houthis had objected to deployment of a UN assessment team and equipment to Djibouti on the Gulf of Aden coast in August, based on a prior agreement with Houthi authorities, he said in a September 2019 report.

"FSO Safer is a disaster waiting to happen and a [ticking] time bomb because it has not received the necessary maintenance work for five years," Abdul Hafeez said.

The Yemeni government called on the UN "through official communications, to intervene to prevent a catastrophe and pressure the Houthis to allow the organisation to dispatch a technical team to perform maintenance work".

"The Houthi militia, however, will not allow them to do that because FSO Safer is moored within its areas of control, as the militia controls all three ports in al-Hodeidah -- the ports of al-Hodeidah, al-Saleef and Ras Issa."

A dangerous bargaining chip

The Iranian regime, via the Houthi militia, has several objectives it hopes to achieve by leaving the ship in disrepair, Abdul Hafeez said.

"The first is that FSO Safer is a time bomb with which they can threaten everyone," he said.

"Iran has used the FSO Safer as a point of threat and pressure in its favour through the Houthis against all the countries of the region," he said.

The second objective "is to be paid the value of the crude oil stored in FSO Safer in the event it is handed over to be emptied, as the Houthi militias have in the past demanded $70 million for the value of the crude oil."

The Houthis threatened to blow up the FSO Safer when the Yemeni army launched its operation to liberate al-Hodeidah province, political analyst Faisal Ahmed told Al-Mashareq.

That prompted the UN to intervene and stop the military operation for humanitarian purposes pursuant to the Stockholm Agreement signed in December 2018.

The fact that Iran did not intervene and push the Houthis to allow maintenance work on the tanker confirms "the possibility that it is using it as a card in its war against the countries of the region", he said.

The Iranian regime might also be using it "to have the economic sanctions imposed on it eased, as the tanker's explosion would halt the export of oil from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries", he said.

Ahmed called on the UN to move quickly to exert pressure on the Houthis "and not wait until the catastrophe occurs, because the damage to Yemen and the Yemenis will be a humanitarian catastrophe that will exacerbate the tragedies of the war which has entered its sixth year this month".

Health, environmental and economic risks

The FSO Safer is at risk of becoming "the biggest environmental disaster" in the world, said Minister of Information Muammar al-Eryani.

If the tanker explodes or if the barrels leak, the oil spill could be four and a half times the size of the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989, the Atlantic Council said in an April 2019 report.

Such a leak would lead to the closure of the al-Hodeidah port for several months and would create a shortage of fuel and essential needs, al-Eryani said in a March 15th statement.

The FSO Safer has been operated by the Yemeni Oil Company for close to 30 years, but it has been "left without maintenance throughout the years of the war", economist Abdul Aziz Thabet told Al-Mashareq.

"The climate of the region, which is characterised by high temperature and humidity, causes it to corrode more quickly," he said.

An oil spill would severely damage the biological diversity of the Red Sea, including the coral reef and fish, which would consequently impact the livelihoods of fishermen, he said.

A spill also poses a risk to international navigation and oil exports, Thabet said, adding that such a disaster would cut energy exports to the world by 15%, adversely impacting global trade activity.

The consequences to the global economy would be dire, he said, urging the international community to exert pressure on the Houthis to allow maintenance work on the tanker.

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