For months the rusting hull of a stricken oil tanker lying off the Yemen coast has been causing mounting concern among international observers, but little has been done to resolve the problem.
The SFO Safer is carrying a cargo of almost 1.2 million barrels of crude oil – four times more than the Exxon Valdez, which became a byword for environmental disaster when it ran aground in Alaska in 1989. United Nations officials warn there is not much time to ensure the Safer – which in late May sprang a leak which has flooded the engine room – does not eclipse that reputation.
If the cargo spills into the Red Sea, it would cause an environmental and economic catastrophe. UN Environment Programme executive director Inger Andersen told the UN Security Council this week the condition of the ship is deteriorating daily and “time is running out for us to act.”
If the worst happens, the world will not be able to say it wasn’t warned. UN humanitarian affairs chief Mark Lowcock also noted to the UN Security Council this week that he has briefed it about the situation 15 times in the past 15 months.
Civil war politics
A key problem has been gaining access to the vessel to asses its condition. The Safer – built in Japan in the 1970s but used as an offshore oil terminal by Yemen’s government since the late 1980s – is caught in the middle of the country’s complex civil war, in which a Saudi-led coalition has been trying (and failing) to defeat the Houthi rebels since March 2015. Two of Riyadh’s allies, the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and the Southern Transition Council (STC) spend a significant amount of time and energy fighting each other rather than their common enemy.
The Houthis control access to the waters where the Safer is anchored and have failed to cooperate with international rescue efforts in the past. Last summer, the group gave permission for a UN team to visit the vessel but then withdrew that permission at the last minute.
Members of the rebel group may also have made the task of rescuing the ship even harder. A report from maritime consultants IR Consilium last August cited a rumor that a Houthi rebel had laid mines in the waters surrounding the ship and “possibly installed improvised explosive devices on the vessel itself, but has since been killed, leaving the location of the devices uncertain.”
Lowcock told the Security Council on 15 July the Houthis have again said they will to allow a UN team to visit the tanker. The mission could take place in the next few weeks, although financing for it has yet to be put in place. “We understand that [UN] member states are working to finalize funding to pay for the UN mission,” he told the Security Council.
Andersen has urged the international community to come up with a plan if the oil does spill into the open water before a rescue operation is completed. However, she said “prevention of such a crisis from precipitating is really the only option… Despite the difficult operational context, no effort should be spared to first conduct a technical assessment and initial light repairs.”
Economic and environmental costs
The cost of the oil spilling into the sea is hard to calculate, but some have tried. UK-based Riskaware says an oil spill could take two-and-a-half years to clean up, at a cost of $20 billion. Even more serious would be a fire or explosion on board the vessel, which could lead to 40% of Yemen’s agricultural land being covered in soot, leaving more than 3 million farmers unable to work for a year.
In addition, more than 8 million people could be exposed to dangerous air pollution and require healthcare which war-torn Yemen can ill afford. More than 8,000 water wells would be at risk of contamination and fishing communities all along the Red Sea coast would see their livelihoods disappear within days. The main port of Hodeidah, which lies to the south of Safer’s location, would probably also have to shut for a significant peiod.
It is not just Yemen’s population that is at risk – those living in nearby areas of Djibouti, Eritrea and Saudi Arabia could all be affected. Egypt is also worried. The question is whether the world will act in time to assuage such deeply-held concerns.