Greenpeace warns of potential catastrophe with oil tanker rusting off Yemen

'FSO Safer' is loaded with more than a million barrels of crude oil and has been moored off Yemen's Red Sea coast since the 1980s

This satellite image shows 'FSO Safer' in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen on January 9. AP
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A leading environmental group on Thursday said a potential major oil leak or explosion on an ageing oil tanker moored off of Yemen’s Red Sea coast could contaminate the region's entire water supply in a matter of weeks.

Greenpeace released a report listing the environmental, humanitarian and economic impacts of a potential oil spill from the FSO Safer on conflict-riddled Yemen and the Red Sea region in general.

“The event could be one of the biggest oil spill disasters in history and would cause widespread severe environmental damage and exacerbate the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the country,” the group said in its report.

The rusting, Japanese-built tanker is loaded with more than a million barrels of crude oil and has been moored in its location six kilometres from Yemen’s western Red Sea port of Ras Issa since the 1980s, when it was sold to the Yemeni government. Before the escalation of Yemen’s conflict in 2015, the vessel was used to store and export oil from fields in eastern Marib province.

The 42-page report states that an oil spill or explosion on the tanker would lead to the closure of desalination plants in Yemen, and eventually disrupt the supply of drinking water to nearly 10 million people.

“The entire Red Sea region’s drinking water supply could be contaminated by oil in just three weeks following a spill,” said Greenpeace.

A major spill would also lead to the closure of Yemen’s western ports, including Hodeida and Salif, through which 68 per cent of aid is brought into the Arab world’s poorest country, the report said. Up to 8.4 million people relying on food aid supplies would be affected, said the Amsterdam-based advocacy group.

An oil leak would also cause the closure of fisheries, the rise of air pollution levels in the region and the disruption of shipping traffic through Bab el-Mandeb Strait and the Suez Canal, said the report.

No longer a question of if, but when

Internal documents obtained by the Associated Press in 2020 show that seawater has entered the tanker’s engine compartment, causing damage to pipes and increasing the risk of sinking. Rust has covered parts of the tanker and the inert gas that prevents the tanks from gathering flammable gases has leaked out. Experts say maintenance is no longer possible because the damage to the ship is irreversible, according to the AP report.

“The question is no longer whether the catastrophe will happen. The question is when it will happen,” Greenpeace Mena Campaigns Manager Ahmed El Droubi told reporters in a virtual news conference on Thursday.

Ras Issa is controlled by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Since 2015, the Houthis have been at war with the internationally recognised government, which is backed by a Saudi-led coalition and the US.

Last month, a Yemeni government official said there was an oil leak from the tanker. Undersecretary of Hodeida province Waleed Al Qudaimi blamed the situation on the UN Security Council and called on countries bordering the Red Sea to act urgently.

The UN has regularly warned of the catastrophic impact of a potential leak from the tanker but none of its diplomatic efforts to resolve the matter have borne fruit. Last year, the UN accused the rebels of using the tanker as a “bargaining chip” to advance their political agenda in Yemen.

“The technology and expertise to transfer the oil to other tankers exist, but despite months of negotiations we are still at a stalemate,” said Paul Horsman, project leader of Greenpeace’s Safer response team. “It is really time to put aside the politics and agree on a contingency plan.”

Mr Horsman said his group is calling for the deployment of a containment boom around the tanker as a first line of defence. Booms are interconnected floating barriers that are usually spread across the water to stop a major oil spill.

“The boom is not a solution but it could potentially buy us time in case there is a spill,” said Mr Horsman. “The only solution is to move the oil safely from Safer to another tanker.”

Chris Johnson, a UN senior policy adviser who was present during the release of the Greenpeace report, said the UN is already working on bringing a boom from Djibouti to Hodeida port. She added that the UN is continuing its diplomatic efforts to reach an agreement between the Houthis, the Saudi-led-coalition and the Yemeni government to resolve the matter.

Meanwhile, the UN is trying to locate a suitable vessel to which the oil could be transferred, Ms Johnson told reporters.

Updated: January 27, 2022, 4:55 PM