War-torn Yemen and the wider Red Sea region face an environmental catastrophe of epic proportions if United Nations experts fail to get swift access to the ageing — and now leaking — offshore oil storage vessel FSO Safer, briefers warned during a 15 July videoconference meeting* of the Security Council.
Launched as a supertanker in 1976 and moored off Yemen’s west coast about 60 kilometres north of Hudaydah, the single-hull Safer has undergone no maintenance since 2015 when it came under the control of Houthi rebels at the start of Yemen’s civil war. It holds an estimated 1.148 million barrels of Marib light crude oil, or about four times the 260,000 barrels that spilled from the Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989.
“Time is running out for us to act in a coordinated manner to prevent a looming environmental, economic and humanitarian catastrophe,” said Inger Andersen, Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, adding that it is imperative that access be granted to the vessel to assess its condition and determine how its cargo can be safely off-loaded. Not only are Red Sea ecosystems and the livelihoods of 28 million people at stake, but an oil spill could aggravate the security situation in the region as vital resources become polluted, scarce and contested, she said.
Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, added that a leak on the Safer on 27 May that spilled seawater into its engine room “brought us closer than ever to an environmental catastrophe”. In a hopeful sign, however, Ansar Allah (Houthi) authorities last week confirmed in writing that it would accept a long-planned United Nations mission to the tanker that could take place in the coming few weeks. “We understand that Member States are working to finalize funding to pay for the UN mission”, which at its outset would include a technical assessment and any initial repairs that might be possible. He noted, however, that similar assurances were made by Ansar Allah in August 2019, only to be withdrawn the night before the United Nations team was due to board the Safer.
Elaborating, Ms. Andersen said that either an oil spill from the Safer — or an explosion and fire on board — could have a serious and long-lasting environmental impact, given that the Red Sea is among the world’s most important repositories of biodiversity. Citing a modelling exercise by independent experts at Riskaware Ltd. of the United Kingdom, she said that in a worst-case scenario, 100 per cent of fisheries along Yemen’s Red Sea coast would be affected within days, with a potential impact cost of $1.5 billion over 25 years. The closure of the key port of Hudaydah for five or six months could trigger a 200 per cent leap in fuel prices in Yemen for several months and food prices would likely double, prompting traders to shift operations to the port of Aden, which would struggle to cope with the extra volume. Were fire to gut the Safer and its cargo, more than 8.4 million people would be exposed to harmful levels of pollutants, she said. While Yemen’s west coast would be worst affected, other Red Sea countries — including Djibouti, Eritrea and Saudi Arabia — would quickly be affected as well, in addition to the passage of more than 20,000 ships through the Red Sea every year.
Responding to a spill would mean containing and recovering the oil at sea and cleaning up the shoreline, but it will take years for ecosystems and economies to recover, she said. Neither the Government of Yemen nor neighbouring States have the capacity to cope, while private sector actors who would typically respond to such a disaster would be reluctant to deploy in a conflict zone. “To top it all, the COVID-19 crisis has relegated the oil spill issue further down the priority list of regional States,” she added. No effort should, therefore, be spared to first carry out a technical assessment of the tanker and initiate light repairs that could determine the need to offload its crude oil, tow the vessel to a safe location for further inspection, and possibly dismantle it in an environmentally sound way. “The immediate priority remains the same: assessment and light repairs,” she said.
In the same vein, Mr. Lowcock recalled that he briefed the Council about the Safer 15 times in the last 15 months — and that most of those briefings repeated the same information. “With little concrete progress, there was little new to say until quite recently.” Noting Ansar Allah’s stated willingness to accept an inspection team, he said that the United Nations is in touch with the Government of Yemen for its approval. On 14 July, he added, an official request was presented to the Ansar Allah authorities, including details on the mission plan, personnel and technical equipment. Hopefully, those requests and other logistical arrangements will be approved quickly and without preconditions. For their part, Member States are finalizing funding for the operation, which can deploy within three weeks of receiving all the necessary permits. “The Ansar Allah authorities have an important opportunity here to take steps that will spare millions of their fellow citizens from yet another tragedy,” he said.
On the 27 May engine-room leak, he said that it is difficult to know precisely what caused it given the absence of maintenance on the vessel since the conflict escalated nearly six year ago. Fortunately, the engine room leak was relatively small, and divers were able to contain it. But the fix is only temporary, and water coming uncontrollably into the engine room could destabilize the Safer and potentially sink the entire structure, which in turn would almost certainly lead to a severe oil spill, he warned. Without prejudging the outcome of a technical assessment, industry experts believe that extracting the oil is probably the only way to remove the threat of a spill for good.
He went on to say that a spill would be more bad news for Yemen’s people — millions of whom already depend on humanitarian aid after nearly six years of war and now, an unprecedented pandemic. If a spill were to occur in the next two months, experts project that 1.6 million Yemenis would be directly affected. Essentially every fishing community along Yemen’s west coast would see their livelihoods collapse and would suffer substantial economic losses. About 90 per cent of people in these communities already need humanitarian assistance. Sea currents and seasonal conditions also mean much of the oil would likely remain near Yemen’s coast rather than dispersing widely. As a result, the port in Hudaydah could be forced to close for a period of weeks or even months. Yemen imports nearly everything, and most imports come through Hudaydah or the port at nearby Saleef. Losing either of these ports for an extended period would destabilize critical commercial and aid imports of food and other essential commodities. It would also deliver another severe blow to Yemen’s already embattled economy, pushing the country towards famine. International maritime routes and neighbouring States would also be affected. The risk from the Safer is by no means strictly environmental, he said, explaining that it is also a direct and severe threat to the well-being — and potentially the survival — of millions of Yemenis.
Turning to the role of the United Nations, he recalled that the Government of Yemen and the Ansar Allah authorities formally requested the Organization’s assistance with the Safer in March 2018. The most frequent demand from the Ansar Allah authorities has been to deploy the United Nations Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen to Hudaydah prior to any assessment of the vessel. “This is a completely unrelated issue to that of the tanker,” he said, stressing that his only objective is to alleviate suffering and prevent a humanitarian catastrophe.
Mohammed Al-Hadhrami, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Yemen, said that the only way to resolve this potential disaster is to put pressure on the Houthis and raise the world’s attention to this matter through the Council. Solving this devastating disaster is not difficult and it starts by allowing the United Nations technical team to access and assess the floating oil tanker. But this simple procedure never came to fruition because the Houthis did not allow it. “The Houthi militias saw the importance of the Safer tanker to us and the international community and decided to use it as a bargaining chip or leverage in the peace process negotiations with a complete disregard for the potential drastic consequences of this unethical behaviour,” he said.
Ever since early 2018, the Houthis have repeatedly announced empty promises and reneged on their commitments, he said, stressing the need to send them a strong signal that this time they must comply. A spill of more than 1 million barrels of crude oil into the Red Sea could close the vital port of Hudaydah for months, endanger marine life and biodiversity, and expose millions of people in Yemen to toxic gases in the event of a fire. The best course of action is to support the latest stand-alone detailed proposal submitted in June by the United Nations Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths.
The proposal consists of three stages: assessment and necessary repairs; basic maintenance to facilitate oil extraction; and disposal of the tanker, with all potential revenue from the sale of oil to be used as a contribution to pay the salaries of civil servants in Yemen. The Government of Yemen have agreed to this and the Houthis have not. “I truly hope that today would be the last time the Security Council hears about an ongoing issue called ‘Safer’ and that it would be resolved before it is too late,” he said.
Saudi Arabia’s representative said that the Council bears primary responsibility for securing the safety and security of the area, given the potential impact of an oil spill from the Safer. Marine life, the environment and the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia would be seriously affected; toxic gases and black clouds would destroy agricultural lands and crops in both Yemen and Saudi Arabia; and large numbers of people would be internally displaced. “The Houthis continue to use this potential disaster to blackmail the world into fulfilling their political ambitions, without regard to the well-being and safety of the Yemen people and region at large.” Emphasizing that Saudi Arabia is suspicious of the Houthis’ stated intention to grant United Nations access to the Safer, he requested the Council to remain vigilant and to be prepared to take strong and decisive measures. For its part, Saudi Arabia stands ready to take whatever steps the Council may deem fit to handle the situation. The Houthis have a record of procrastination and non-compliance with Council resolutions, he said, adding that the 15-member organ must not allow such reckless and irresponsible behaviour to continue.
Egypt’s representative said that the deteriorating condition of the Safer represents “a clear and imminent threat” to Yemen’s people, the coastal States of the Red Sea and shipping through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. It is morally unacceptable and unjustifiable for the Houthis to politicize humanitarian issues and risk an environmental disaster for political gain, especially when a pandemic is sweeping the world. He called on all parties to cooperate with the United Nations to ensure that the tanker is properly maintained and secured without delay or preconditions. He also urged the Council to take immediate steps to redress the situation, in parallel with ongoing efforts towards a political solution to the conflict in Yemen.
The videoconference meeting took place a day after the Council extended the mandate of the United Nations Mission to Support the Hudaydah Agreement (UNMHA) for 12 months (see Press Release SC/14250 of 14 July.
* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.