The Imminent Threat of History’s Most Disastrous Oil Spill in the Red Sea
Yi Qian Chan (Beau), Strategic Development Director (2020/21)
MACRO INSIGHTS 2020/21
Source of the threat
The FSO Safer, a Yemeni-owned supertanker carrying 1.1 million barrels of Marib light crude oil, moored and left to decay in the Red Sea since 2015 after being taken over by the Houthi, a political and armed movement in northern Yemen, is poised to be the source of a massive oil spill quadruply worse than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska (widely considered to be the world’s most environmentally damaging oil spill).
Left bereft for decades, the irreversible damage that the Safer has suffered means it is in danger of sinking: highly saline seawater has corroded the hull and entered the engine compartment, pipelines have been damaged, and several fractures and leaks have been detected. In addition, the inert-gas system is no longer functioning so flammable gases that evaporate from the oil could ignite and cause an explosion. Saudi Arabian authorities have also reported sightings of oil spots next to the tanker since last year, indicating likely seepage.
It's not a question of whether the Safer will eventually spill its contents, it's a question of when.
David Soud, security analyst at IR Consilium (US).
The solution to the imminent catastrophe has proven elusive, largely due to political tensions arising from the civil war in Yemen that has been ongoing for almost 7 years. The government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, with the support of Saudi Arabia, has been fighting the Iranian-backed Houthis since 2014 for control of the country.
How did the situation devolve?
Difficulties surrounding circumventive measures
Only a skeleton crew of less than 10 SEPOC (the Yemeni state-owned company that the Safer belongs to) staff are allowed on board the vessel, guarded by 5 armed Houthis at all times. Without sufficient manpower to carry out necessary maintenance or offload the oil, they are limited to making emergency repairs only.
Donor funds are also running out for a solution, according to a UN Security Council briefing in May 2021. As of 3 June 2021, only 10% of funding seems to have been received by the partners who have pledged to assist Yemen.
Responses from different stakeholders
The UN and the Houthi administration - timeline of negotiations
24 November 2020: The Houthi administration formally agreed to grant the UN access to the tanker for a technical inspection to be carried out. The UN's mission "has always been to assess the vessel's conditions", according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and they have pledged to do so impartially. However, solid steps towards repair or spill prevention had yet to be taken.
February 2021: Previous agreement reviewed upon the Houthi administration's request. No security assurances given for the UN team's safe passage, which would also cause the budget to increase.
March 2021: A leader of the Houthi movement tweeted outrage at the UN's requirement for a secure zone around the Safer and other conditions outside of the original November agreement.
1 June 2021: Negotiations with the Houthi administration for a UN assessment team to board, investigate and stabilise the vessel reach a deadlock. The Houthi-led Supervisory Committee for the Implementation of the Agreement on Maintenance of the Safer expressed disappointment over the UN allegedly ruling out most of the agreed maintenance due to misspent funding.
Since 2015, marine scientists have published increasingly alarming reports on the risks of such a massive oil spill, but repeated calls for the international community to intervene have not been heeded. The Safer's years of deterioration in plain sight have constituted "the most advanced warning ever of a major oil spill" — hence the impending fallout, which is entirely predictable and preventable, can only be blamed on deliberate neglect.
It's not somebody directly shooting at it — this is a political decision to allow this vessel to essentially reach a stage where it causes an environmental catastrophe.
Doug Weir, Conflict and Environment Observatory (UK).
Implications of the oil spill
The Red Sea is one of the world's most important repositories of biodiversity, hosting a range of marine mammals, sea turtles, sea birds, sharks and many other species. Marine ecosystems, proposed marine protected areas and coastal zones north and south of the Safer — such as the mangroves that are breeding grounds for fish — face the risk of oil pollution.
Coral reefs in the northern Red Sea (such as the Stylophora pistillata species), which have remarkable heat tolerance and thus should theoretically be able to survive the effects of global warming, might instead succumb to the effects of this potential oil spill.
Exacerbation of humanitarian, economic and health crisis in Yemen
Due to the civil war in Yemen, an oil spill would only worsen conditions beyond the strife, starvation, internal displacement and COVID-19 pandemic that is already ravaging the country.
Should the Safer's flammable gases cause an explosion, the fire would expose some 5.9 million Yemenis (many of whom are internally displaced) and 1 million Saudi Arabians to toxic air pollution within 1 to 2 days, triggering potentially severe health impacts. Toxic soot would also contaminate the land and damage crops, thereby hurting the livelihood of 3.2 million farmers.
The oil spill itself would hit Yemen's 235,000-strong fishing industry as it would block half of the fishing grounds, with an estimated $350 million economic cost over 5 years. Even worse, the 3 key ports through which 70% of all food and fuel imports and 80% of humanitarian aid arrive — located on the coastline of the Houthi-held Hudaydah governorate where the Safer is anchored — would be forced to shut down for up to 3 months, endangering food security in the midst of a civil war that has already left 66% of the population in dire need of aid.
Why resolution is urgent and time-sensitive
Modelling by scientists predict that compared to an oil spill that occurs in the summer, the oil spill could be carried north up the coast of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba by strong winter currents in less than a month. Because water has a long residence time within the Red Sea due to its enclosed nature, the spillage will remain trapped for longer than it would in the open ocean. An example of how the effects of a winter spill would be even more far-reaching and devastating is that 2 new desalination plants located in the Hajjah governorate north of Hudaydah would face having their regional fresh water supplies being polluted as well. Moreover, this is a mere conservative estimate that has not even taken into account wind and wave action that will surely lead to greater dispersion.
To avert the crisis, offloading the oil cargo onto a more seaworthy ship to be left on site is the solution that the international community seems to agree upon, but the lack of Houthi permission to access the Safer in the first place has given the UN pause. The US, UK, France, Tunisia and the Yemeni government itself have called for a military solution, whereas other Security Council members stressed the need for an impartial, depoliticised approach via further negotiation with the Houthi administration. It should be noted that it is unprecedented for the UN to deploy military force to address an environmental emergency. Up until the recent breakdown in negotiations, a diplomatic and co-operative approach was maintained in order to build confidence on both sides to facilitate a deal. However, with Houthi permission becoming more and more unlikely, marine scientists have urged the UN to galvanise member nations to take coordinated action and achieve access to the Safer "by all means necessary in order to pump off the oil" as it is a justified response to tackling the imminent threat to a unique global natural resource. Even Houthi permission will not offset the need for foreign military assistance with the logistics of transporting industrial-scale equipment into a politically unstable region, for security against potential attacks as well as to clear the area of sea mines.
Unfortunately, the window of opportunity left for the oil to be pumped off and for oil booms to be stockpiled regionally is rapidly closing. Should the inevitable happen, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) will be responsible for mitigating the resulting environmental damage, though they are severely limited in their sea response capability, and are at minimal capacity to protect sensitive coastal areas. International intervention is therefore crucial in disaster response as well. For example, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the IMO have been supporting regional efforts (including by the Yemeni government) to create a contingency plan in case of a significant spill. However, the grim reality is that even if the response activities were initiated immediately post-spill, the surrounding environment and economies will likely take years to recover.
The same scientific report published in 2020 regarding the imminent threat posed by the Safer also warned of the need for the international community to tighten and revise regulations on the average of 4.8 million barrels of crude oil and refined petroleum products that are transported through the Bab el Mandeb strait into the Red Sea every day, on their way to Europe, the US and Asia via the Suez Canal. Oil spills here would threaten valuable marine ecosystems contained in the coral reefs lining the 4,000 km-long coast, as well as the half a dozen surrounding island communities that have little means to protect themselves.
A regional leak prevention and containment strategy must be tailored for the Red Sea's unique ecosystems, unusual water currents and political landscape.
Oil extraction, refinement and shipping companies should contribute annually towards a UN-mandated and regulated fund for spill mitigation, supported by the World Bank Group (which has also been active in pollution management in the transport industry since 2010).
An online marine pollution reporting system similar to the one set up by the UN Environment Programme for the northwest Pacific region should also be adopted for the Red Sea.
1) Fitt, E. (2021). Talks break down over crumbling Yemeni tanker threatening massive oil spill. Retrieved from : https://news.mongabay.com/2021/06/talks-break-down-over-crumbling-yemeni-tanker-threatening-massive-oil-spill/
2) UN calls on Yemen’s Houthis to allow stranded oil tanker probe. (2021). Retrieved from : https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/6/4/un-calls-on-yemens-houthis-to-allow-examination-of-oil-tanker
3) Russell, M. (2021). CATASTROPHIC RED SEA OIL SPILL 'IMMINENT' - DIVE Magazine. Retrieved from : http://divemagazine.co.uk/eco/9222-yemen-oil-tanker-red-sea-disaster
4) Yemen: Health, environment and economy remain under threat from stricken oil tanker. (2021). Retrieved from : https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/06/1093352
5) Kleinhaus, K., Voolstra, C., Meibom, A., Amitai, Y., Gildor, H., & Fine, M. (2020). A Closing Window of Opportunity to Save a Unique Marine Ecosystem. Frontiers In Marine Science, 7. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2020.615733
6) Scientists warn of massive potential oil spill from Safer tanker in the Red Sea - Oceanographic. (2021). Retrieved from : https://www.oceanographicmagazine.com/news/safer-tanker-red-sea/