Oil Tanker FSO Safer Poses an Environmental and Economic Threat to Yemen and the Red Sea Region
The Floating Storage and Offloading Vessel (FSO) Safer, once owned by the Yemeni government but now controlled by the Houthis’, is at risk of failing and causing an oil spill of 1.148 million barrels of Marib light crude oil into the Red Sea region. This is four times the amount of oil that was spilled in Alaska after the Exxon Valdez incident in 1989.
Currently moored in the Port of Ras Isa, Yemen, the Safer has not received any maintenance or systems check since 2015, which is especially troubling considering the ship was built in 1974. On May 27, a leak resulted in seawater spilling into the engine room, and while the incident was contained, it illustrated the critical need for inspections to take place. If the engine room were to become flooded, it is highly probable that the vessel would sink, resulting in the oil spilling into the sea. It has remained under the control of Houthi rebels since the onset of Yemen’s Civil War in 2015, with the Houthis avoiding commitments and voiding agreements that would have allowed inspection teams to secure the tanker. Therefore it is likely that the current talks to allow an inspection team will also be stalled.
There is a high chance that an incident involving the FSO Safer may result in a major environmental disaster in the Red Sea, one that will have enormous economic and political repercussions.
The environmental impact of a disaster involving the FSO Safer would be severe and widespread, potentially affecting the livelihoods of 28 million people. The sea currents around the west coast of Yemen, as well as seasonal conditions, would likely result in a great deal of the oil spilled remaining in the area as opposed to gradually dispersing. While the west coast of Yemen would take the brunt of the damage resulting from an accident, other states in the region like Eritrea, Saudia Arabia and Djibouti would be impacted. In a modeling exercise conducted by Riskaware Ltd. in the United Kingdom, a worst-case scenario would negatively affect 100% of fisheries along Yemen’s Red Sea coast. An oil spill would likely affect 1.6 million Yemenis. Additionally, a fire onboard the FSO Safer would expose over 8.4 million people to damaging levels of pollutants. It is also important to note that the biodiversity contained within the Red Sea is among some of the most important in the world and would require years in order to recover.
The economic impact of an accident occurring onboard the vessel would also be severe. Yemen is already grappling with a civil war and humanitarian crisis, which would become exacerbated by an incident on the FSO Safer. Much of the population relies heavily on humanitarian assistance, and in fishing communities along the possibly affected coast, 90% of the inhabitants already require assistance. The impact on fishing could potentially cause an economic loss of $1.5 billion over the 25 years. Key ports like Hudayadah would be forced to close for extended periods of time and cause a 200% increase in fuel prices in Yemen. Since Yemenis rely heavily on imports, their closure would likely result in shortages of food and other critical supplies. A possible shortage is especially alarming since the country has been in the midst of a famine since the beginning of the civil war. Traders would likely be forced to relocate their operations to the port of Aden, which is not in a position to handle a sudden and vast increase of volume, and passage through the Red Sea would also become difficult or potentially even impossible.
In March of 2018, both the Government of Yemen as well as the Houthis formally requested assistance from the United Nations (UN) in dealing with the FSO Safer. However, it appears that after becoming aware of the international community’s concern with preventing a potential environmental disaster, the Houthi leadership have begun to use the vessel’s instability for political leverage in negotiations for peace. When a UN inspection team was sent to Yemen in response to the formal request, they were denied access. The Houthi leadership continues to obfuscate as the vessel further deteriorates. Currently, the UN is preparing to send in another inspection team after recent assurances by the Houthis. However, it remains to be seen if the team will be granted access.
 Yemen oil tanker wreck: Time running out to avert ‘looming environmental, economic and humanitarian catastrophe’, UN News, July 2020, https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/07/1068461
 Without Access to Stricken Oil Tanker off Yemen, Under-Secretary-General, Briefing Security Council, Warns of Environmental, Economic, Humanitarian Catastrophe, United Nations, July 2020, https://www.un.org/press/en/2020/sc14254.doc.htm
 Safeguarding the Red Sea amid the coronavirus: Preventing the spill of the FSO SAFER, Atlantic Council, May 2020, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/energysource/safeguarding-the-red-sea-amid-the-coronavirus-preventing-the-spill-of-the-fso-safer/