Most of the limited international diplomatic energy devoted to ending the civil war in Yemen understandably goes to preventing the loss of lives, whether from bloodshed or famine. But now that a two-month truce between the belligerents has been extended, urgent action is required to forestall a different kind of calamity: an oil spill that could rank as one of the world’s worst environmental disasters and disrupt a vital global trade route.
The civil war has both created and, for several years now, distracted attention from the fate of the FSO Safer, a decrepit oil supertanker, laden with 1.1 million barrels crude oil, which has been rusting in anchorage off the port of Ras Isa in Yemen’s west coast.
The Houthis, an Iran-backed rebel group that started the war in 2014, made some desultory efforts to sell the oil, but buyers were deterred by the war and international sanctions. The rebels then allowed the tanker to decay, using the prospect of a disastrous leak to blackmail the international community for aid and favorable terms in ceasefire negotiations.
Now the Houthis have belatedly agreed to allow the oil to be offloaded from the vessel, but the United Nations and environmental groups like Greenpeace warn that time and money are short — and that the Safer is a time bomb about to blow, spilling its toxic cargo into the Red Sea.
This threatens not only the eight littoral countries — Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea and Djibouti — but also international shipping on one of the world’s busiest trade routes. The risk to the global economy needs no exaggeration: Memories are fresh from the last time a single ship choked the waterway.
But the damage caused by the Safer would be far greater than the economic costs imposed by the Ever Given in March 2021. The UN reckons it would take $20 billion just to clean up the Red Sea; the toll on the global economy could be magnitudes higher.
Built in 1976, the single-hulled Safer is 360 meters long — a fifth again as long as Exxon Valdez, the ship at the center of the infamous 1989 spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Previously called Esso Japan, it was converted into a floating oil storage and offloading facility and sold to the Yemeni government in 1988. Its name (pronounced “saffar”) comes from the desert location of the country’s first oil discovery.
The vessel was last surveyed eight years ago by the American Bureau of Shipping before the civil war prevented any further audit of its seaworthiness. Its hull desperately needs repair, and it is a safe bet that its mechanical and electronic equipment — including, crucially, its fire-fighting gear — are no longer in working order. A spill from a breached hull or an explosion are both clear and present dangers.
The UN reckons an emergency operation to offload the oil will cost $80 million. (An additional $64 million will eventually be required for a replacement for the ship.) Donors have been parsimonious, however, and the UN is short by $20 million for the offloading operation. It is resorting to online crowd-funding to plug the gap.