The FSO SAFER is one of the world’s largest tankers and is anchored 60 kms north of the port of Hodeidah, a key lifeline for aid supplies to much of Yemen’s population. With 1.1 million barrels (over 140,000 tonnes) of oil on board, the 400,000-tonne tanker had no maintenance since 2014, because of the six-year-long conflict which has caused a humanitarian catastrophe and practically stopped the day-to-day functioning of the country. 

While on the coasts of Sri Lanka volunteers are relentlessly working to limit the disastrous impacts of the worst marine accident in the country’s history, the SAFER lies abandoned in the Red Sea and is a ticking time bomb ready to go off. 

Last year, the engine room flooded and emergency repairs were carried out; the fire extinguishing equipment no longer functions and most recently the inert gas system necessary to prevent explosions has broken down.

Why it matters

The situation in Yemen has been described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis with more than 24 million people – some 80 percent of the population – in need of humanitarian assistance, including more than 12 million children.

A rupture of the single-skin hull or an explosion could result in a spill up to 4 times greater than that caused by the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989. This would cause an ecological disaster and seriously exacerbate the humanitarian crisis, preventing access to the main ports of Hodeidah and Saleef, vital for aid, food and fuel supplies.

With each day that passes, efforts to remove the oil safely become more difficult because of the failing equipment. As things stand, the tanker could leak – or even explode –  at any time and spill the oil it is carrying. This could trigger an environmental catastrophe that has the potential to destroy the limited livelihoods of poor coastal communities depending on fisheries, devastate nearby coral reefs, clog desalination plants that provide drinking water to millions of people in the region, and exacerbate the consequences of the conflict.

What needs to happen

Greenpeace is working with organisations both in Yemen and the region to identify and support a solution to remove the oil while preparing to respond in case of a major oil spill. 

Given the political context of brutal conflict in Yemen, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, and with the risks of an oil spill threatening citizens in the wider region, UN action is critical to prevent an environmental and humanitarian disaster.  The international organisation must use every non-violent means to avert an oil spill from the FSO SAFER making it an urgent priority in negotiations.

All parties involved should do what is necessary to secure the diplomatic solution that would ensure a technical assessment of the Safer as a matter of urgency, to determine the status, identify immediate requirements as well as plans for ensuring the safe transfer of the oil onto another seaworthy vessel.

At the same time, plans for the worst-case scenario are also needed, identifying the necessary technical and personnel support.  The International Maritime Organization (IMO) needs to step up to its responsibility in its mandate to ensure that plans are made and the necessary expertise and equipment are in place to respond rapidly to any unfolding disaster as a result of the Safer.

The time is ticking on this potential environmental bomb, while Yemen is experiencing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Whilst all parties involved in the conflict in Yemen sounded the alarm about the risks of an accident occurring with the FSO SAFER a year ago, it remains as vital as ever that the situation is assessed and the requisite non-violent measures taken as soon as possible, ensuring that all parties involved cooperate with the UN experts to resolve this issue.

Ahmed El Droubi is senior campaigner at Greenpeace MENA