Sitting just off Yemen’s Red Sea Coast is a rusting FSO SAFER oil tanker with the potential to catalyse an economic, environmental and humanitarian crisis. Six years of war between the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the coalition supported by Saudi Arabia & UAE has resulted in a severe lack of maintenance, causing potentially irreversible damage to the oil tanker. The effect of this neglect is a flooded engine room destabilising an already deteriorating vessel. FSO SAFER threatens to spill 1.15 million barrels of crude oil into the ocean (The Weather Channel), which could have immense economic, social and environmental repercussions for the Yemeni people. The FSO SAFER truly does not live up to its name.
A temporary fix may have averted the immediate disaster however, a durable solution has been foiled by the war which deters all private operators from entering the area. Furthermore, United Nations (UN) efforts to intervene have been stalled due to disagreements over the sale of the FSO SAFER oil barrels. Houthi rebels currently control the vessel and are aiming to sell the oil for an estimated $40m (BBC) thus, they are contesting the suggested distribution between them and the Yemeni government. The Government of Yemen, who are the official owners of FSO SAFER, along with the neighbouring countries remain powerless in the face of a threat with the potential to change the lives of millions for the worse.
Yemen is in need of aid and external support. Thousands of Yemeni people have and continue to suffer through war and COVID-19 – 360,000 Yemeni children are severely malnourished (World Food Programme data). Yemen’s economy relies heavily on food and essential commodities imports from its trading partners and aid suppliers. An oil spill would prove devastating for the jobs and livelihoods of 1.6 million Yemeni people, according to a briefing to the UN Security Council. It would close the main trading port, cut off Yemen’s shipping lanes and make 126,000 workers (BBC) in the already struggling fishing industry unemployed.
FSO SAFER has the potential to deliver an economic and environmental blow which could greatly overshadow one of the largest oil spills to date. This is not an exaggeration. According to CNN, The Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, released only a quarter of the quantity of oil that FSO SAFER contains. Reportedly, it took a substantial toll on wildlife within a 1,300-mile parameter, including around 250,000 birds, 22 killer whales, and 3,000 otters, leaving pockets of oil that remain today. The total economic loss equalled around $2.8bn. Yemen’s Central Statistical Organisation and Holm Akhdar estimate that 115 Yemeni islands could lose their biodiversity due to the potential FSO SAFER oil spill.
Yet it has received little media attention. The world needs to know about this disaster. It is likely to happen and must be stopped.