A United Nations operation to avert a catastrophic oil spill in the Red Sea by salvaging a decaying supertanker off the coast of Yemen is moving forward this week after years of delays.
The oil tanker, the FSO Safer, holds more than 1 million barrels of oil, about four times the amount leaked in the disastrous Exxon Valdez spill of 1989.
A crew that plans to inspect the rusting tanker set sail on Monday from Djibouti in East Africa to the port of Hudaydah on Yemen’s west coast, arriving on Tuesday. The tanker is moored north of the port city and was once the site of fierce battles in the country’s eight-year-old war, which created one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
If all goes as planned, the team’s inspection will pave the way for an operation to transfer the oil to a seaworthy tanker purchased by the United Nations earlier this year.
The FSO Safer originally functioned as a floating storage facility fed by a pipeline that carried oil from eastern Yemen. But the war left it isolated, and it has been poorly maintained for years, prompting the United Nations and Yemeni experts to repeatedly warn that it is an ecological time bomb that could explode or disintegrate at any moment.
If the oil from the tanker spilled, it would ravage marine life as well as the fishermen and coastal communities that depend on it. It could shutter ports crucial to bringing in desperately needed humanitarian aid in a country where hunger is rife.
It could also force the closure of desalination plants that supply water to millions of people.
“The consequences of not doing anything would be dire and devastating,” said Mohammed al-Hakimi, the head of Holm Akhdar, an environmental consulting firm in the Yemeni capital, Sana. Leaks or an explosion could create “a major environmental disaster within a humanitarian crisis,” he added.
“Almost everyone in the Red Sea’s coastal communities makes a living from fishing,” said Khaled Zarnogi, a fisherman and the head of the Khokha Youth fisheries group in the town of Khokha, south of Hudaydah. He estimated that there were 10,000 fishermen in his town alone, in addition to others who earn their income from the fishing industry.
“If the tanker burst, all of those individuals would be out of work,” he said.
A spill could also have a cascade of repercussions for other countries along the Red Sea, including Saudi Arabia and the East African nations of Eritrea and Djibouti. Damage to coral reefs would hamper Saudi Arabia’s ambitions to develop luxury tourism along its Red Sea coastline. And because the tanker is near key shipping lanes, even global trade could be affected.
“An explosion or spillage from the tanker would not only result in an environmental disaster but also inflict significant damage on economic activities,” said Ahmed Nagi, senior Yemen analyst at the International Crisis Group.
Yet international efforts to inspect the tanker and safely remove its oil have sputtered for years.
The multilayered war was a major factor, turning Hudaydah into a battle zone for long stretches. The tanker was also held hostage by a dispute over who had the right to the oil inside of it and any potential revenue it could generate, Mr. Nagi said.
Yemen’s war began in 2014, when fighters from the country’s powerful Houthi militia swept through the north into the capital, displacing the internationally recognized government. A military coalition led by neighboring Saudi Arabia intervened in 2015 in an attempt to restore that government, launching a devastating bombing campaign.
The Iran-linked Houthis, who have since formed a parallel government, control the area where the tanker is moored and saw the oil as a potential asset.
The internationally recognized Yemeni government and their Saudi allies blamed the Houthis for the delay in salvaging the tanker. A plan to begin the operation in 2021 was delayed indefinitely at the last minute after the Houthis refused to guarantee the salvage team’s safety in writing, the U.N. said at the time.
“We are dealing with a militia that revolted against the state and its legitimacy,” said Salem Abdullah al-Soqotri, the Yemeni government’s minister of agriculture, irrigation and fisheries.
The Houthis did not respond to a request for comment. But in the past, the rebel group has blamed its opponents for the tanker’s dangerous state. At a news conference in Hudaydah on May 17, the head of the Houthi committee in charge of the tanker, Zaid Ahmed, said the Houthis were surprised that the U.N. had purchased a new ship without consulting them and demanded that the U.N. hand over an “operational plan” for resolving the problem.
The U.N., meanwhile, had cited a lack of sufficient funding for the operation, which is expected to cost more than $100 million for the first phase alone, and it even launched a crowdfunding campaign. The U.N. said it needed an additional $29 million to complete both phases of the salvage operation, out of a total budget of $143 million.
Preparations for the oil transfer may take one to two weeks, and the transfer itself could take around three weeks, but the timing could change depending on what the crew discovers on the vessel, said Achim Steiner, administrator of the United Nations Development Program.
Negotiations between Saudi Arabia and the rival Houthis to reach a partial resolution to the war, which have gathered pace this year, appear to have “fostered some understanding” about the tanker, Mr. Nagi said.
“We have high hopes for salvation from this disaster very soon,” the foreign ministry for Yemen’s internationally recognized government said Monday on Twitter.
Saeed Al-Batati contributed reporting from al-Mukalla, Yemen, and Shuaib Almosawa from Sana, Yemen.