September 1, 2020
FSO Safer is a floating oil storage and offloading vessel that is moored in the Red Sea north of the Yemeni city of Hodeidah. It is holding more than 1.1 million barrels of crude oil. The vessel has not been properly maintained since 2014 and is showing increasing signs of stress. It is now posing a very serious threat and could trigger a massive environmental, economic and humanitarian disaster that would severely affect Yemen and its neighbors. The Houthi militia, which has controlled the area since 2014, has not allowed UN experts to inspect the vessel and propose ways to defuse the situation.
To put the danger posed by the Safer into perspective, consider that the oil on board is more than four times the amount that spilled from the ill-fated Exxon Valdez in 1989, when that tanker ran aground off the coast of Alaska, spewing some 260,000 barrels of oil, which polluted about 2,200 km of coastline, killing wildlife, ruining livelihoods and damaging the whole ecosystem of that area. The spill cost billions of dollars in cleanup efforts, which lasted many years. Even now, 31 years later, the damage lingers, as large parts of Alaska’s wilderness and previously pristine coasts are still affected by the spilled oil, which seeped deep into those areas and became difficult to dislodge.
The catastrophe that the Safer could cause may be greater, considering its load and the fragile environment around it, plus its potential impact on the livelihoods of millions of Yemenis. Unlike the Alaskan wilderness, the Red Sea is heavily trafficked and its busy sea lanes are very close to the location where Safer is moored.
The Safer situation has worsened since seawater started leaking into its engine compartment in May. Since then, the UN Security Council (UNSC) has expressed concern over the danger posed by the vessel and, on June 29, it issued a statement expressing “deep alarm at the growing risk that the Safer oil tanker could rupture or explode.” The council “underscored the need for the Houthis to immediately grant unconditional access for United Nations technical experts to assess the tanker’s condition, conduct any possible urgent repairs, and make recommendations for the safe extraction of the oil, ensuring close cooperation with the United Nations.”
Last month, the UNSC dedicated a session to the Safer crisis. UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock noted that, during recent months, he had briefed the UNSC 15 times on the Safer tanker. He was clearly frustrated, as there was “little concrete progress.” He said that, after the May leak, the “Safer brought us closer than ever to an environmental catastrophe.”
The UN has noted that the leak of seawater in the engine room could destabilize the Safer and potentially sink the entire structure, leading to a severe oil spill. Its experts have assessed the impact of the potential spill and consequences for Yemen and its neighbors. Coastal communities would be severely affected in three provinces: Taiz, Hodeidah and Hajjah. If the spill were to occur in the next two months, they project that 1.6 million Yemenis would be directly affected. Essentially, every member of the fishing community along Yemen’s west coast would see their livelihoods collapse and would suffer substantial economic losses. About 90 percent of the people in these communities already need humanitarian assistance.
The port in Hodeidah could be forced to close for a period of weeks or even months, according to the UN. Most of Yemen’s imports come through Hodeidah or the nearby Saleef port. Losing either of these ports for an extended period would destabilize critical commercial and aid imports of food and other essential commodities. This has the potential to inflict terrible additional suffering on millions of Yemenis, both on the coast and inland. The disruption would push the country toward famine.
UN officials have stressed that the risk from the Safer is by no means strictly environmental, but will also be a “direct and severe threat to the well-being — and potentially the survival — of millions of Yemenis,” in addition to its impact on international maritime routes and neighboring countries.
The internationally recognized government of Yemen has granted the UN permission to visit the site, inspect the vessel and carry out any repairs necessary to avert the potential disaster. The oil company has cooperated with the UN to facilitate such a mission. However, the Houthis have not allowed it, despite pronouncements that they would.
Lowcock last month informed the UNSC that the Houthis “have been unwilling to accept a mission in practice. Instead, they imposed preconditions and linked the Safer with other issues.” He added, with some exasperation: “I have provided you, in my previous 15 briefings, with a running commentary on this protracted bureaucratic minuet, of permissions to visit being sought, apparently being granted and then turning out in fact not to have been granted.”
The UN is still waiting. Several specialist organizations are ready to go as soon as the Houthis allow them access to the stricken vessel.
What we see in the Safer case is a situation where the Houthis — a runaway rebel group affiliated with Iran — are contributing to a potential disaster, oblivious to the suffering of the people under their control, which would multiply many times over should the Safer explode or sink.
As we saw with the Beirut port storage of ammonium nitrate, years of bureaucratic obstruction and inaction can lead to a disaster such as the explosion of Aug. 4. And, just as with the Houthis in Hodeidah, another Iran-affiliated militia was in control in Lebanon: Hezbollah and its allies had control over the port and many government agencies responsible for the disaster.
The two militias are closely connected. The Houthis model themselves on Hezbollah, which provides regular support for the Houthis. Both are funded, armed and run remotely by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, following similar negotiation styles and being willing to sacrifice civilians and the environment to achieve their political goals.
After years of futile negotiations with the Houthis to save the Safer, the UN may need to consider new ways to salvage the vessel and avert the approaching catastrophe. So far, the focus has been on the Houthis, but the UN, as a first step, also needs to hold Iran responsible for the fate of the ship and any damage that it could cause.