A disaster is waiting to happen on the Yemeni coast

A decaying oil tanker is jeopardising Yemeni livelihoods, international commerce and ecosystems

epa08776510 A handout satellite image made available by MAXAR Technologies shows FSO Safer, an oil storage tanker stranded off the coast of the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah, Yemen, 29 August 2020 (Issued 26 October 2020). Houthi militia denied UN inspectors access to the FSO Safer, an oil storage tanker stranded off the coast of Hodeidah for more than five years with some 157,000 tones of light crude oil, as images of oil spill around the ship emerged. Experts warn of a major environmental crisis in the Red Sea if the ship's load spill into the sea.  EPA/MAXAR TECHNOLOGIES HANDOUT -- MANDATORY CREDIT: SATELLITE IMAGE 2020 MAXAR TECHNOLOGIES -- the watermark may not be removed/cropped -- HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
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An oil tanker that has been decaying off the coast of Ras Issa, in Yemen, for the past 32 years now threatens to spill its contents or even explode at any time. A single spark could set the FSO Safer alight, experts have told The National. Unless urgent action is taken, the 45-year-old ship is a calamity waiting to happen.

While a selfless crew keeps the Yemeni coast safe, the leaders of the country's Houthi rebel movement hold on to the collapsing tanker as a bargaining chip. For the past five years, the Safer has had no repairs, and has been manned by a team of five to seven people. Their expertise and efforts have kept disaster at bay in the face of cynical politicking.

The Safer was due to be decommissioned in 2015, when the Yemeni civil war erupted. The rebels who have held onto it since hope to sell the oil it carries on the black market to support their military campaign. Their imagined profits would never match up to the cost of the very real impending environmental catastrophe.

The Houthis have repeatedly claimed they will grant UN experts access to the ship, but have instead delayed or cancelled such visits. In June, they agreed to have a specialist team assess damages and make repairs, only to renege that promise, too.

Meanwhile, the rebels refuse to offload the ship’s 1.1 million barrels of oil, estimated to be worth up to $80 million. The Aden-based Yemeni government, which is internationally recognised and controls the eastern part of the country, would rather sell the oil to pay salaries across the country.

The Houthi control over the ship has jeopardised Yemeni livelihoods, international commerce and the ecosystems of the Red Sea. Heads of EU missions to Yemen said on Tuesday that they would hold the rebels responsible should anything happen to the tanker.

An oil spill in Ras Issa would threaten fisheries and desalination plants in the region. Many Yemeni families rely on these industries to earn a living, but also for food and drinking water. The disruption could also jeopardise shipping lanes and the western ports of Hodeidah and Salif as well as Ras Issa, on which Yemen collectively relies to receive 80 per cent of all humanitarian aid.

The Houthi control over the ship has jeopardised Yemeni livelihoods, international commerce and the ecosystems

The consequences of an oil spill or an explosion could, however, extend far beyond Yemen. It could damage ecosystems or hinder food security in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Djibouti and Eritrea, and expose more than 8m people to dangerous pollutants.

The UN, the Yemeni government and international experts have warned about the potential for catastrophe for years, but the Houthis refuse to put the interests of Yemeni people above their own short-termed gains. Every day that the Safer continues to be at sea in its present condition, the risk of a man-made disaster increases. The Houthis must not be allowed to destroy Yemen's coast. The oil on the tanker must be offloaded, and the ship decommissioned, even if the parties to the country's conflict have yet to reach a consensus.