The giant Floating Storage and Offloading (FSO) facility called the FSO SAFER is moored off the coast of Yemen, in the Red Sea, where it has been left unattended since 2015.

The war in Yemen, which has caused the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe and practically stopped the day-to-day functioning of the state itself, has made it impossible for SEPOC, the company that owns the FSO SAFER, to maintain the vessel safely. All production and export operations related to FSO SAFER have been suspended, but an estimated 150,000 MT (nearly 1.1 million barrels) of crude oil remain onboard.

A rupture of the single-skin hull or an explosion could worsen the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and result in a humanitarian and environmental disaster, in a spill up to four times greater than that caused by the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989. This would seriously exacerbate the humanitarian crisis, preventing access to the main ports of Hodeidah and Salif, vital for aid and food supplies, adding an additional burden to a country already devastated by six years of conflict.

Greenpeace launched a new study done by the scientific unit in the organization. It explains that in the absence of a quick solution, the ship could have devastating effects and countries should be prepared for that. It is necessary to deploy a floating barrier to contain the oil around the ship as a first step to prevent the expansion of the oil slick in the event of a leak. However, the floating barrier does not provide a solution to prevent the potential short- and long-term humanitarian and environmental impacts in the region, which can only be mitigated by removing oil from the ship.

Why it matters now

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 – hence the description of the FSO Safer as a “ticking time bomb.”

An oil spill in the Red Sea could trigger an environmental catastrophe that has the potential to destroy the limited livelihoods of Yemen’s poor coastal communities depending on fisheries, impact health, devastate nearby coral reefs, clog desalination plants that provide drinking water to millions of people in the region, and exacerbate the consequences of the Yemeni conflict.

The environmental impacts on the Red Sea’s fauna, corals and seagrass beds would also be catastrophic in a region which is a major biodiversity hotspot.

It’s not if – it’s when – and the impacts on people and the planet would be huge

© AFP via Getty Images

People’s health at risk

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. In the event of an oil spill, access via the main ports of Hodeidah and Saleef, vital for aid, food and fuel supplies, would be disrupted.

© Khaled Ziad / AFP via Getty Images

Ailing local economy

Up to 670,000 people’s livelihoods could be impacted by the spill and subsequent cleanup operations, through damage to fisheries, marine resources, and coastal industries, and factory and port closures.

The amplitude of the potential economic impacts on local communities is huge.

© Axel Heimken / Greenpeace

Threatened Red Sea fauna

The Red Sea is a major world’s biodiversity hotspot, hosting endemic species and sensitive habitats such as seagrass beds, mangroves and coral reefs and is particularly vulnerable.

The Red Sea is semi-enclosed, which makes oil recovery difficult, lengthy and costly, in particular given the ongoing conflict in Yemen.

What needs to happen

Greenpeace is currently working with organisations in Yemen and the region to identify and support a solution to remove the oil and prevent a major environmental and humanitarian catastrophe that could happen anytime, while preparing to respond in case of a major oil spill.

Given the political context and the ongoing conflict in Yemen, action by the United Nations (UN) and international community is critical to prevent an environmental and humanitarian disaster and ensure a swift solution to the FSO SAFER time-bomb is a priority in negotiations.

Our reliance on fossil fuels puts millions of lives at risk and this should change now

Governments and the oil industry have the moral obligation to take ambitious action and stop putting entire communities at risk, who are already acutely vulnerable and the least responsible to deal with the catastrophic consequences of our dependence on climate-wrecking fossil fuels.