Threatening Red Sea environmental disaster, but no solution in sight

Theres been warnings for years, but theres still no action to follow. The problem: a rusty oil storage tanker, which has been floating practically unmanned off the coast of Yemen since 2015. According to experts, a disaster will occur with the FSO Safer sooner or later if the oil the ship still has on board is not removed. The whole region would be severely affected.

At least 9 million people lose their drinking water supply within a few weeks, as well as a crucial source of food: Red Sea fish. This would be particularly hard in the civil war-ravaged Yemen, where the population is already suffering from major food shortages. The consequences of such a disaster are calculated in a report published this week by the scientific journal Nature Sustainability. In it, researchers look at the long-term effects of a potential leak for the first time.

The Red Sea coral reefs can be severely affected if it comes to this, warns the report. A lot of marine life is dependent on these reefs, so the disaster will also have consequences in Saudi Arabia, Eritrea and Djibouti.

What needs to be done seems simple: remove the oil. There is 200 million litres of oil on the Safer and an unknown quantity in the pipeline between the shore in Yemen and the storage tanker. Pipeline and ship are in poor condition. The tanker dates back to 1976 and is single-walled, which greatly increases the likelihood of a large leakage.

Such an oil storage operation has been thought out for a long time. It would cost between $12 and 15 million dollars to remove the oil safely. On the other hand, the oil is worth a lot of money and could therefore be sold. So in view, the operation must be at least cost-effective.

But the war in Yemen complicates that solution. Negotiations between the United Nations and the warring parties, the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels, are stuck in wall.

Inspection remains out

The problem lies on both sides, says Jemen expert Laila al-Zwaini. โ€œThe UN received permission to inspect the ship last year, but the Houthis did not want to provide safety guarantees, so no inspection was left out. The Saudis, who are fighting the Houthis on the side of the government, could also contribute to a solution. But that would suggest that they admit in the war. So they dont.โ€

One of the main obstacles is the question of where the oil yields should go. The Houthis dont want that money to flow back to their enemy, the government of Yemen. The issue has also been discussed within the UN Security Council, but without any results.

Exxon Valdez

A comparison is evident with the worst oil spill in history: the Exxon Valdez accident off the coast of Alaska in 1989, which had slightly more oil on board than the Safer. A navigation error caused the ship to ram a reef at Prince William Sound. About a fifth of the load of crude oil leaked into the sea; 2100 kilometers of coastline became severely polluted and hundreds of thousands of animals died. The cleaning alone cost billions of dollars. In the end, only a tenth of the leaked oil has been cleaned up.

Take a look back at the Exxon Valdez disaster here:

The Safer is potentially a much worse disaster than the one in 1989, and at worst, four times as much oil can flow into the sea as it was leaked at the time. And the Red Sea coastlines are much denser populated by humans than in the remote area where the Exxon Valdez ran away.

According to the report in Nature, an oil spill would force the nearby ports of Salif and al-Hudaydah to shut down, leading to a major fuel shortage. That fuel is needed for water pumps, and if they drop, there will be no drinking water for 8 million Yemites. The fish stocks in the Red Sea would be almost destroyed by the oil.

The report recalls an incident that shows how unsafe the Safer is. That was a water supply leak in the engine room in May 2020, that employees were only able to close. According to Nature, the likelihood of disaster is increasing. โ€œAn oil leak could be caused by further deterioration of the condition of the hull, or the hull breaks as a result of a storm, or because the accumulated volatile gases explode on board, or by a direct attack on the ship.โ€