Environmental disaster in looming due to Houthi Brinkmanship in the Yemen

August 3, 2020

The FSO Safer, oil tanker with more than a million barrels of degrading crude is anchored four miles off the Yemen’s coast. Its steady deterioration is inviting an unparalleled environmental disaster in the Red Sea region. An explosion or a spill can very well have long lasting implications on Yemen and neighboring countries along the Red Sea.

Yemen is grappling with multiple struggles, ranging from constant state of wars, famine and water crisis, and the current pandemic situation seems to just worsen the lives in the country. It is the right time for international community to address the FSO Safer situation with equal importance before the feared environmental crisis becomes a reality. UN-backed team and experts is all ready to move the tanker from Red Sea. But getting all the parties of interest in Yemen to agree for this operation is a major task, specially when the Houthis have control of waters in the region of anchored FSO Safer.

Houthis and the government is consistently obstructing UN’s operation of moving the Safer. They are not allowing the involvement of a third party too to have an access to Safer. This reluctance and brinkmanship can have a heavy price in case of a spill or explosion leading to profound environmental implications, thus costing them politically and militarily in the region.

Safer was built as a tanker in 1976. Since 1988 it is moored off the Yemen cost and it was then converted to FSO (floating storage and offloading) vessel. Currently it serves as terminal for one of major oil pipelines in Yemen. It forms a key component of Yemen’s oil infrastructure. But when Saudi Arabia and its allies intervened heavy-armed in Yemen back in 2015, there have been close to zero repairs and maintenance on Safer. Though the Safer is guarded by a Yemeni crew, its essential systems like fire control, inert gas systems and diesel engines are non-functional. This an invitation to explosion.

An experts commented on the Safer’s condition, “Even with the most stringent maintenance and upgrade schedules in place, this ship would be a danger due to its age, location, and design.”

The problems associated with Safer need to be dealt on priority. A failure to do so can result in oil spill or explosion with ability to destroy the rich marine life ecosystem in Yemen’s coast and also much of the Red Sea. The fact that crude oil stored in tanker has viscosity close to that of seawater, it can disperse throughout the water affecting the marine life and unique ecosystems in Red Sea.

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