A ticking time bomb off Yemen coast
SAFER FSO is an oil tanker that is moored some seven miles off the Ras Isa port in the Red Sea coast.
Dubai - After almost 18 months of hard negotiations, a UN expert team has got permission to visit the ship and assess its safety.
Yemen's protracted conflict and the massive hunger crisis it has spawned is one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world.
But the war-ridden Arabian country is sitting dangerously close on the edge of a bigger and more dangerous man-made catastrophe - an ageing and rapidly decaying oil tanker that can explode anytime spilling 1.14 million barrels of crude oil into the Red Sea.
The Floating and offloading (FSO) terminal SAFER is a 'floating bomb' lying unmaintained since last four years with combustible toxic gas forming in its containers. If it explodes - and it can - it will completely destroy Yemen's marine environment, contaminate its desalination plants pushing the country into a severe water crisis, and more importantly annihilate the country's fragile peace process, experts told Khaleej Times.
After almost 18 months of hard negotiations, a UN expert team has got permission to visit the ship and assess its safety.
"Glad to confirm UN assessment team arrived in Djibouti and will travel to tanker next week. Cooperation from everyone has been and will be essential," tweeted Ursula Mueller, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs & Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator on Thursday.
Over the last year, as Yemen's warring factions kept passing the buck and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels that control the FSO flatly denied access to the UN-expert team, SAFER's tank was slowly falling apart. Even now, with each passing day, it is turning into a ticking time-bomb.
SAFER FSO is an oil tanker that is moored some seven miles off the Ras Isa port in the Red Sea coast. It once belonged to the Yemeni government and served as an offshore oil platform for vessels loading crude oil from the Marib-Isa oil pipeline. With the outbreak of the civil war in Yemen, Houthis captured the port and the terminal has remained closed since 2015. And no maintenance has been done on the vessel.
Crude oil is inert and if properly maintained, its storage poses no risk. However, the air compartment above the crude oil becomes oxidized over time. If inert gas operations are not performed, that air itself becomes inflammable.
"There are 34 compartments of crude oil on the ship and some of them may have been already highly oxidized. If not maintained, the whole ship could potentially blow up," explained Ian Ralby, an expert in maritime and international security.
According to Ralby, two scenarios could play out. "The vessel is corroding aggressively. Leaks are possible anytime or even already happening. At any point, the vessel could break apart leading to a massive spill," said Ralby who is the CEO of US-based think-tank I.R. Consilium.
Third is the political volatility of the situation that Ralby fears Houthis will take advantage of and intentionally spill the oil into the Red Sea. "SAFER has become a focal point of a Houthi negotiation with the UN as well the coalition. They have talked about wanting to sell these 80- million dollars-worth of oil on the ship."
"You are looking at 80-million dollar cargo versus tens of millions worth of economic and environmental impact not to mention the potential of losing lives."
An article published by Atlantic Council on July 28 that is co-authored by Ralby, argues that a potential blow up of SAFER could have "far-reaching and highly destructive range of effects: desalination plants contaminated, depriving tens of millions of people, some already on the brink of famine, of access to clean drinking water; the loss of marine ecosystems that may be the key to saving the rest of the world's coral from warming seas; millions of desperate Yemenis literally starved for international aid because port facilities are unusable; tangible impact on the global economy from the temporary closure of Red Sea shipping lanes; armed conflict over basic necessities; and a downward spiral in an already fragile region."
"Those are all possible consequences of a million-barrel oil spill in the Red Sea."
Political bargaining chip
SAFER FSO and its $80 million worth of crude oil is in the heart of Yemen's complex war with the Houthis using it as a political pawn to push for the lifting of an embargo imposed on them by the Saudi-led coalition.
But the Yemeni government says the ball is in the Houthi court now as the government has already cleared all formalities for the UN technical team's visit.
"The problem is we have been trying to convince them (UN) to come and inspect the tanker. We filed the request way back in 2018. We sent another letter in March 2019. We gave permission to a UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) team in May. But till date, they could not be deployed because Houthis are stalling the visit," Mohammed Al Hadhrami, Yemen's Deputy Foreign Minister told Khaleej Times over phone.
"We hold Houthis fully responsible if a disaster happens in the Red Sea. We also hold UN responsible for not putting enough pressure on Houthis."
"They are pushing the envelope. The UN has to expose them in the Security Council, they have to pressure them publicly. Then they would concede and come around and do what is right," said Hadhrami.
In March last year, the Yemeni government had written to the UN secretary general requesting for assistance to carry maintenance work as the vessel was in a "bad and deteriorating situation" and threatened an "imminent environmental and humanitarian catastrophe in the Red Sea". Though a tender was given to a Singapore-based company to assess the FSO's safety, escalating violence stalled any progress to the work.
Last month, the UN humanitarian Affairs Coordinator, Mark Lowcock told the UN Security Council that an inspection team had again been refused permission by Houthis to visit the ship.
The UN-negotiated Stockholm Agreement between the Houthis and Yemeni's Hadi government required demilitarisation of the ports of Hodeida, Salif and Ras Isa and thus allow local security forces to take control of the port. The port revenues are also to be channelled to the Central Bank of Yemen.
But with peace deal already hitting many roadblocks, SAFER and its contents have become a political bargaining chip, according to Doug Weir, director of the Conflict and Environment Observatory that monitors and publishes data on the environmental dimensions of armed conflict.
"The fate of the contents of the SAFER was apparently on the table during the Stockholm talks. The Houthis want to be able to sell it as they need the revenue for civil servants and the war effort. In this respect the SAFER is already a bargaining chip," Wier told Khaleej Times.
"The SAFER FSO is a critical part of Yemen's oil exporting infrastructure as it services the output from the Marib field. The loss of the vessel would therefore have a lasting impact on Yemen's economy - although the pipeline feeding it has been shutdown since 2015," said Weir.
What is the way forward?
Wier says that will depend entirely on the outcome of the UN inspection.
"Options might include unloading the oil in situ, restarting maintenance operations or moving the vessel to a foreign port where it can be properly dealt with. The viability of these options is closely linked with the condition of the vessel, and the political questions around the ultimate fate of its contents."
Even if an inspection is carried out, it will merely be the first step in the long-drawn process in mitigating the catastrophe.
Wier underlines the importance of having an emergency response plan assembled by Red Sea states, countries with experience in managing spills, and by the UN in case there is a spill.
To avoid one of the largest and most damaging oil spills, experts are calling for a concerted effort as a spill would impact not only Yemen and all of its warring parties, but the world economy as a whole.
"Logically this should mean that the SAFER is an opportunity for cooperation between all these parties, but right now that's not what we are seeing," said Weir.
If the calls are ignored, UN's Lowcock adopts a cautionary stance and leaves it to your collective imagination to fathom the scale of the environmental catastrophe SAFER can trigger.
"I leave it to you to imagine the effect of such a disaster on the environment, shipping lanes and the global economy."