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An end in sight for Yemen's oil tanker 'time bomb'?

November 16, 2022
topics: Pollution
by: Mubarak Al-Yousifi
located in: Yemen
tags: marine life, oil, Yemen, Yemen civil war

Following years of stagnation, the UN believes it reached a breakthrough in negotiations to salvage the neglected oil tanker threatening a humanitarian and environmental catastrophe.

A massive storage and offloading supertanker holding more than 1.14 million barrels of crude oil is moored seven kilometres away from the coastal city of Hodeidah, and has not been attended since Yemen's civil war erupted in 2015. 

Built in 1976 by the Japanese company Hitachi Zosen, the tanker's total tonnage and deadweight are 192,679, and 406,640 tons, respectively, and it measures 362 meters in length.

In 1988, a Yemeni oil company repurposed it as an unpropelled storage ship to export oil from inland oil fields to other countries. Its storage capacity is roughly three million barrels of oil

In March 2015, war erupted in Yemen when a Saudi-led- coalition began fighting the Houthi rebel group (Ansar Allah), to support the internationally recognised government. Since then, oil production in Yemen has ceased, and the moored tanker, FSO Safer, has been neglected.

Houthi rebels took control of the coastline and its surrounding area, and prevented all local and international bodies, including a UN-led delegation, from inspecting and repairing the unloading ship, as both fighting parties asserted claims to the tanker's oil. 

In October 2019, Holm Akhdar, a Yemeni platform reporting on local environmental and climate issues, published a detailed report about the FSO Safer and the potential risks that could result from an oil leak.

Following the circulation of the report, the UN called on both fighting parties to participate in negotiations under its auspices in order to reach an agreement about the tanker. 

In mid-2020, the BBC reported that seawater had seeped into the engine room of the tanker, which could result in an explosion of the ship. In August of the same year, the UN  in an official statement warned that the Safer ship is on the brink of an explosion that would have severe consequences. 

A brewing environmental catastrophe

In a recently published a report titled A Ticking Time Bomb, Greenpeace pointed out that an explosion of the tanker would adversely affect all walks of life, and that a leak of any proportion would impede all shipment processes to the Yemeni ports of Hodeidah and Salif.

And approximately 68% of humanitarian aid and food supplies would be also suspended which would be affecting to more than 8 million Yemenis who are roundly depending on that aid to survive.

The report further states that desalination plants in the cities of Hodeidah and Aden would be affected by a potential oil spill, which would also seriously affect more than 1.7 million people working in the fishing industry.

More than 356 rare types of Red Sea coral reefs would likely be devastated, as well as one thousand rare species of fish according to the report. 

In addition, the UN estimated that a cleanup operation in the event of a spill would cost roughly USD $20 billion, and that  aquatic pollution would last for about 30 years. 

Mohammed Al- Hakeemi, editor-in-chief of Holm Akhdar, confirmed in a conversation with FairPlanet that an explosion or oil spill from the tanker would severely pollute Yemen's coastal area and that cleanup efforts would be hindered by the dire conditions facing the country (which would only be exacerbated).

He added that the humanitarian, environmental and economic impacts of a leak or explosion of the FSO-Safer would affect the livelihoods of millions of people, including hundreds of thousands of people working in the fishing industry.

"The potential oil spill would also affect more than 100 thousand beekeepers working in the honey production industry, due to air pollution that may destroy their bee colonies," Al-Hakeemi added.

Salvaging Efforts on the ground 

In August 2020, a group of prominent Yemeni activists launched an initiative for the salvaging of the FSO Safer, and called on Houthi rebels to allow the UN-led team to access the tanker for inspection and maintenance purposes.

The initiative also called on the authorities to sell the ship's cargo and use the revenue to implement humanitarian projects targeting the most vulnerable people in coastal regions and resume the payment of salaries for employees in the educational and medical sectors.

They further called on the international community and the UN to raise the pressure on the fighting parties to resolve the supertanker crisis. 

Afrah Al-zobah, the initiative's coordinator, told FairPlanet that their appeal was the first step in mobilising local and international efforts to save the Safer tanker and avert a catastrophe.

"This initiative made pressure on the fighting parties to [partake] in constructive engagements with the UN to reach an agreement about the Safer ship," she added. 

Such continued civil demands have eventually compelled the fighting parties to hold negotiations under the auspices of the UN and try to reach an agreement. And while the initial negotiation sessions were unsuccessful, a subsequent UN-drawn plan to salvage the tanker was agreed upon by both parties. 

The plan involves purchasing an emergency alternative safe floating vessel and then immediately transferring the oil from the Safer into the alternative tanker through a global marine salvage company.

The UN estimates the entire process would cost approximately USD $113 millions. 

Russell Geekie, a Senior Communications Advisor to the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, told FairPlanet that the UN will be able to implement the UN-coordinated plan to prevent a massive spill from FSO Safer.

"Donors have generously pledged the $75 million required for the emergency operation to transfer oil from the Safer to a safe vessel - phase 1 of the UN-coordinated plan," he added.

He continued by saying that the preparatory work for the operation has already begun, including the processes to contract the salvage company and procure the vessel that will hold the oil.

He added that the completion of a detailed operational plan and the procurement of the vessel are the two major steps that need to be completed ahead before work on the water could commence.

He assured that the UN will be able to provide a timetable for the work upon completion of the detailed operational plan.

Finally, Geekie expected that the salvage company will send a team to Yemen in November to finalise the detailed plan. 

Image by Andrew Svk.

Article written by:
Mubarak-headshot
Mubarak Al-Yousifi
Author
Yemen
Greenpeace reports that an explosion of the SFO Safer would adversely affect all walks of life.
In August 2020, a group of prominent Yemeni activists launched an initiative for the salvaging of the FSO Safer, and called on Houthi rebels to allow the UN-led team to access the tanker for inspection and maintenance purposes.
"Donors have generously pledged the $75 million required for the emergency operation to transfer oil from the Safer to a safe vessel – phase 1 of the UN-coordinated plan."
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