Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

FSO Safer: Bomb that Might Explode in the Red Sea

FSO Safer
An abandoned oil tanker, at risk of sinking due to poor maintenance, is anchored off Yemen’s southern port city of Aden on July 21, 2021. Saleh OBAIDI / AFP

Fares Al Hemyari

In Yemeni territorial waters in the Red Sea, Houthis are holding the fuse of a time bomb weighing about 400 tons, which is about to explode, amid fears of widespread risks to biodiversity, the international shipping route and global ports in the countries bordering the Red Sea.

The time bomb is a floating oil storage and offloading vessel located in the Ras Isa in the Red Sea off Al-Hodeidah Governorate, western Yemen.

The ship, belonging to the state-owned company SEPOC, is under the control of the Houthis, which have controlled the capital, Sanaa, most of the northern governorates and the coastal governorate of Al-Hodeidah since late 2014.

The ship was used before the outbreak of the war in Yemen, about seven years ago, to unload crude oil coming from the Marib oil fields through pipelines that extend for a length of 438 kilometres to the reservoir and as a port for export.

The process of pumping and unloading oil to and from the reservoir, which currently contains about 1,278 thousand barrels of crude oil, has also stopped, and the maintenance process has halted since 2015, causing the tank to erode.

The third-largest floating tank in the world

The Safer vessel is the third-largest floating tank in the world of the Ultra Large Crude Carriers class. The Hitachi Zosen Corporation built this ship in Japan. It was converted into a floating tank in Korea and entered service with oil exports from the Yemeni Safer fields in 1988.

The ship, about 400 meters long and 70 meters wide, weighs more than 400,000 tons, and is able to store around 3 million barrels of oil, went out of work several years ago. Economic estimates indicate that maintenance may cost about 10 million dollars annually.

Continuous leakage and half measures

In June 2020, the first case of leakage from the tank was recorded. Then, the leakage increased in August 2021. While the issue is still ongoing, local engineering teams have put half measures and useless solutions in place.

Abdul Wahid al-Awbali, an employee at SAFER, told Fanack that “a leakage occurred during the past months in the pipeline coming from Ras Isa – that is, in the vicinity of the ship – which contains about 18,000 barrels of crude oil.”

Awbali added: “The Houthis tried rudimentarily to fill the hole with epoxy, but the leak occurred again. Despite the small quantities of oil leaked, it is continuing today.”

Awbali, who is also a researcher in Yemeni economic affairs, explained that “the amount of crude oil inside the tank constitutes a time bomb in light of the halt in inert gas production due to the suspension of boilers, noting that nitrogen (which is an inert gas) prevents the ignition of the contents of the tanks from crude oil by covering and isolating them from its perimeter that is saturated with oxygen.”

According to Awbali, “all parts and equipment of the ship have been damaged as a result of the shutdown and lack of maintenance since the outbreak of the war in an environment of high humidity, salinity and high temperature, and as a result of the Houthis’ refusal to withdraw the ship for unloading.”

Calls to stop the catastrophe

The internationally recognised Yemeni government has called several times to end the imminent disaster and made proposals. Still, the Houthis have more than once rejected these proposals, according to the government.

The Yemeni government, through its Minister of Information Muammar al-Eryani, considered that “the terrorist Houthi militia affiliated with Iran has continued for the seventh year in a row to ignore warnings of an impending environmental disaster, the largest in human history, due to the erosion of the hull of the Safer tanker anchored off the port of Ras Isa in Al-Hodeidah since the coup without any maintenance. The ship contains more than 1 million barrels of crude oil.”

Eryani held “the Houthi militia fully responsible for the catastrophic environmental, economic and humanitarian damage as a result of the tanker’s leak, sinking or explosion, in light of reports of erosion of its hull and engines and the appearance of oil spills around it, due to the obstacles the Houthis put in front of the arrival of a technical team to assess the tanker’s condition and carry out inspection and maintenance.”

Eryani indicated that “the serious threat will not be limited to Yemen,” calling for “collective and immediate action to avoid a catastrophe that millions of civilians will pay for in the riparian countries, and will have catastrophic consequences on international shipping routes in the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandab.”

In turn, the United Nations called the Houthis to allow an international team to inspect the ship for initial assessment and maintenance work. Last June, the Security Council discussed, in a closed session, the risks arising from the delay in the arrival of a UN team to the Safer oil tanker, stressing that “the risks of a major leakage from the Safer tanker are growing every day.”

Awbali believes that despite the Houthis’ repeated calls for the need to unload the crude oil inside the floating port to avoid disaster, they are not serious. He pointed out that the risks of a leak or explosion in the tank “will completely pollute the western coasts of Yemen and will extend its impact to the Saudi and Eritrean waters and other countries bordering the Red Sea. This pollution will destroy the marine environment and cut off sources of income for tens of thousands of fishermen, perhaps for decades, not to mention the cost of combating and cleaning, which may reach more than 50 billion dollars, in addition to the environmental and other damages, the cost of which cannot be quantified.”

Reciprocal accusations

FSO Safer
Newly recruited Houthi fighters take part in a gathering in the capital Sanaa to mobilize more fighters to battlefronts to fight pro-government forces in several Yemeni cities, on January 3, 2017. Mohammed HUWAIS / AFP

In November 2020, the Houthi group and the United Nations agreed on a plan to assess the condition of the dilapidated oil tanker in preparation for its maintenance. Still, the agreement wasn’t implemented amid accusations traded between the two sides.

The Houthis say that “the United Nations has retreated from the general framework that was reached for the urgent maintenance and comprehensive evaluation of the Safer ship,” and that “time can no longer tolerate further delays, to prevent an environmental disaster in the Red Sea, which could occur at any moment.”

In response, Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General Farhan Haq, said in a previous statement that the Houthis’ statements were disappointing and that “the Houthis are demanding prior guarantees that the United Nations will complete all possible light maintenance activities in the plan.”

International concerns escalate

With the faltering of the United Nations agreement with the Houthis and the failure of a UN assessment and maintenance team to arrive, international concerns about the Safer oil tanker escalated amid warnings of a major disaster.

The US State Department said: “The condition of the oil tanker [Safer], which the Houthis control, is deteriorating, and this could cause a catastrophic spill in the Red Sea.” The US State Department accused the Houthis of not allowing international experts to assess the tanker’s condition.

During her tenure as Dutch foreign minister, the new Dutch Finance Minister Sigrid Kaag expressed “the Netherlands’ deep concern over the issue of the Safer tanker, which requires immediate treatment to avoid an environmental catastrophe that will affect Yemen and the region.”

Also, Britain has more than once expressed its concern about the fact that everybody is running out of time and that the leakage from the back of the tanker, which carries more than 1 million barrels of crude oil, is constantly increasing, demanding that the Houthis be obligated to allow the United Nations’ technical team to access the Safer.

Potential catastrophic risks

Omran Ibrahim al-Rashidi, a Yemeni expert in marine sciences and biology, believes that any oil pollution in the Red Sea will have economic damage to the national income, and the Red Sea will lose its biological diversity. According to Rashidi, the pollution will harm international shipping routes, especially since more than half of the world’s oil needs are transported through the Red Sea.

In an exclusive interview with Fanack, Rashidi said: “The seas represent huge economic tributaries to the countries bordering them. Yemen has large coastlines that stretch for about 2500 km, and they are clean coasts. The coastal areas are among the most important areas rich in natural resources of great economic value.”

He also stressed that the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden region are a hub for exploration, production, processing and transportation of more than half of the world’s proven oil needs, an estimated 100 million tons of oil annually.

According to Rashidi, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden are sensitive environments because they contain large areas of coral reefs, and mangrove swamps and forests, in addition to wetlands, which are the most important marine environments in the primary reproduction of marine life in general and fish in particular.

Rashidi warned that any oil pollution in the Red Sea would lead to a group of severe real disasters, on the economic level for individuals and companies operating in the marine environment, due to the suspension of marine activities and/or their complete or partial paralysis.

The damage will be affecting large numbers of fishermen, according to Rashidi, as they will lose their only source of income in the fields of manual, traditional and even commercial fishing, in addition to the loss of hundreds of thousands of tons of fish stocks inside Yemeni waters as a result of either the direct death of fish or their migration to areas far from Yemeni territorial waters.

He also pointed out that “many islands in the Red Sea may be exposed to oil pollution, which will endanger their biological diversity and natural habitats, not to mention the damage and death of coral reefs of various types and huge shapes that characterise the environment of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.”

Rashidi concludes by referring to the significant risks that any potential oil pollution may pose to marine algae that will be exposed to death and damage, knowing that these algae are a source of food for marine organisms, pointing out that migratory birds to and from Yemen, as well as sea and wild birds present in the Republic of Yemen, are at risk of death due to contamination of their feeding sources.

Eight countries overlook the Red Sea, with about 10 major ports and dozens of islands with environmental diversity distributed in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, Sudan, Egypt, Djibouti, Israel and Jordan.

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