A Huge Environmental And Humanitarian Disaster Is Looming In The Red Sea

A satellite image of FSO Safer off the marine terminal of Ras Isa in Yemen on June 17, 2020. Satellite image ©2020 Maxar Technologies

An environmental timebomb is ticking off the coast of the Red Sea. The UN Environment Programme has warned that an abandoned oil tanker near Yemen's Red Sea coast is threatening to leak over 1 million barrels of oil and spark an “environmental, economic, and humanitarian catastrophe.”

The FSO Safer, a huge shipping vessel loaded with 1.148 million barrels of light crude oil, has been stranded in the Red Sea oil terminal of Ras Issa for more than five years since the outbreak of the Yemeni Civil War. After being abandoned in 2015, the ship has suffered numerous structural problems and has been a constant concern of many in Yemen and beyond. But in May 2020, seawater began leaking into the engine room, threatening to destabilize the vessel and spill its entire cargo into the surrounding waters. 

If worst comes to worst, the decaying tanker has the potential to spill over four times the amount of oil spilled in the infamous 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster.

“Time is running out for us to act in a coordinated manner to prevent a looming environmental, economic, and humanitarian catastrophe” Inger Andersen, UN Environment Programme (UNEP) chief, told the UN Security Council on July 15. 

“Prevention of such a crisis from precipitating is really the only option,” she added. 

Coast of Yemen: The tanker can just be seen in the bottom left quarter of the image (as a tiny pink fleck). Satellite image ©2020 Maxar Technologies

Independent experts have informed the UNEP that if a major spill occurs between July and September, it would affect 100 percent of Yemen’s fisheries within a matter of days. As previous oil spills have shown, the legacy of this could be catastrophic to marine life and the wider ecosystem for years. Holm Akhdar, a Yemeni environment group, estimates the Red Sea and its inhabitants would not recover for at least 30 years. This is especially worrying considering the Red Sea is home to many rare species of dolphin, dugong, turtle, manta, seabird, and shark, not to mention some 300 species of coral. 

A spill would also lead to a huge amount of human suffering. Yemen is currently up to its neck in a brutal civil war primarily between the Yemeni government and the Houthi armed movement. After 5 years of the conflict, the Arab country is already facing a severe humanitarian crisis, with an estimated 360,000 children threatened with famine and severe malnutrition. If an oil spill occurs, it will add further extreme stress to the 28 million people that rely on the Red Sea and its coastal zone for their livelihoods. 

Then comes the economic cost. An oil spill could see the closure of the Al Hodeidah port for up to six months, resulting in a 200 percent increase in fuel prices and causing food prices to double in Yemen, deepening on the ongoing famine. 

Given the fierce tensions in the area, there is no easy solution. The FSO Safer has been in an area controlled by Houthi rebels since the start of the civil war. Last week, Houthi officials said they would allow a UN rescue mission to conduct a technical assessment of the vessel and carry out initial repairs, according to Reuters. However, similar assurances have been given before, only to fall flat at a later date. 

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