FSO Safer: The ageing oil tanker is a time bomb on Yemen’s coast

The international community should move now to prevent another disaster in a country already devastated by war.

close up view of the FSO Safer oil tanker
This handout satellite image from Maxar Technologies shows a close-up view of the FSO Safer on June 19, 2020, off the port of Ras Isa, Yemen [Handout / Satellite image ©2020 Maxar Technologies / AFP]

Already suffering from heavy conflict, Yemen is on the verge of another humanitarian and environmental disaster.

Less than five miles (10 kms) off Yemen’s coast is the FSO Safer. An ageing oil tanker whose structural integrity is on the verge of collapse, the Safer is a ticking time bomb that risks spilling massive amounts of crude oil into the Red Sea.

It is not a question of if, but when the FSO Safer will fail. Constructed in 1976 as an oil tanker, the Safer was converted a decade later to be a floating oil storage and offloading (FSO) unit. The 376-metre-long (1233 ft) vessel contains more than one million barrels of light crude oil. But it has not been maintained properly for years due to the war in Yemen.

The human rights, environmental, and economic impacts of a major spill from the Safer would be catastrophic. Fishing communities on Yemen’s Red Sea coast, more than two million people, would be devastated. Two hundred thousand livelihoods could be instantly wiped out. Whole communities would be exposed to life-threatening hazardous substances.

A major oil spill could also close the nearby ports of Hodeidah and Saleef, which are essential for bringing food, fuel, and lifesaving supplies into a country where 19 million people need food assistance.

Additionally, the Red Sea’s biodiversity would suffer serious harm. The disaster would have a severe environmental impact on water, reefs, fish, and life-supporting mangroves. Increases in death and disease would threaten marine life, and toxicity could contaminate water, beaches, and sediment. Clean-up alone would cost up to $20bn.

Disruptions to shipping through the Bab al-Mandab Strait to the Suez Canal could cost billions more every day. Consider the immense economic loss when the Ever Given blocked the Suez Canal.

The impacts of a major spill would infringe upon the rights to life, health, and a clean, healthy and sustainable environment of the affected populations. In the face of such risks, states must act proactively to avert this imminent disaster.

In addition to the grave human rights, economic and environmental impacts, the Safer threat brings to light the global economy’s over-reliance on fossil fuels and related climate change woes.

The humanitarian, environmental, and economic effects would ripple beyond Yemen and affect the entire region. A major oil spill would also harm Eritrea, Djibouti, Saudi Arabia, and Somalia.

And yet, there is a way to prevent this looming disaster.  After years of discussions, the United Nations produced a coordinated operational plan to address the threat.

The plan consists of two concurrent tracks: installing a long-term replacement for the decrepit tanker within 18 months, and transferring the oil to a safe temporary vessel over four months. Both the Safer and the temporary vessel would remain in place until all the oil is transferred to a permanent replacement vessel. The Safer would then be towed to a shipyard and sold for salvage.

This plan appears to have the necessary support of the parties to the conflict and key stakeholders. But the plan’s success is contingent on funding.

The clock is ticking. By October, high winds and volatile currents will make the operation more dangerous and increase the risk of the ship breaking into pieces.

On May 11, The Netherlands and the UN are co-hosting a pledging event in the Hague in support of this UN-coordinated plan. Tens of millions of dollars in funding now will save tens of billions of dollars in the future.

Yemen is already suffering the devastation of war and hunger. Just off its coast is an imminent threat of further disaster. The country, its people, and the surrounding ecosystems are all at risk. Fundamental human rights are threatened. However, with the necessary funding, a plan can be put into action right now.

Donors should commit their support before the weather window to transfer the oil closes and the risks increase. Continuing to wait could result in the catastrophe the world is so close to averting.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.