July 23, 2024
Home » Yemen’s abandoned oil Tanker poses imminent environmental threat as UN commences risky operation

Yemen’s abandoned oil Tanker poses imminent environmental threat as UN commences risky operation


In a race against time to prevent a looming environmental catastrophe, a dilapidated oil tanker stranded off the coast of war-torn Yemen since 2015 has become a pressing concern for authorities. The vessel, known as the FSO Safer, holds over a million barrels of oil and poses a grave danger if it ruptures or explodes.

On Sunday, a super-tanker owned by the United Nations arrived at the scene, marking the commencement of a delicate operation to extract the oil from the abandoned ship. The urgency stems from the vessel’s deteriorating condition and the potential for devastating consequences.

Here are the key facts surrounding this critical situation:

  1. Blast Risk: The Safer, a 47-year-old floating oil storage platform, is currently anchored near Yemen’s western port of Hodeida in the Red Sea, a crucial shipping route. Neglected throughout Yemen’s eight-year civil war, the vessel lies approximately eight kilometers (five miles) from the coastline and holds four times the amount of oil spilled during the infamous Exxon Valdez incident in 1989.

Since 2017, the systems responsible for pumping inert gas into the tanks have ceased functioning, substantially increasing the risk of an explosion. Both the United Nations and Greenpeace have described the Safer as a “ticking time bomb.” The estimated cost of the UN operation to transfer the oil and tow the ship to a scrap yard is around $143 million. However, an additional $22 million is required to safely transport the Safer to a recycling yard and secure the replacement vessel for the proper storage of the oil until its final destination is determined.

  1. $20 Billion Spill Consequences: In the event of a spill, the United Nations projects clean-up costs could exceed $20 billion. The environmental, humanitarian, and economic impacts would be catastrophic. Local fishing communities along Yemen’s Red Sea coast, encompassing approximately 200,000 people, would suffer immediate devastation, losing their livelihoods. Moreover, the spill could jeopardize desalination plants in the region and force the closure of Hodeidah and Saleef ports, which are critical supply routes for food, fuel, and essential resources in Yemen, where the majority of the population relies on aid for survival.

The ramifications would extend to neighboring Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia, leading to widespread pollution and the release of life-threatening toxins into the air, endangering entire communities. Furthermore, the spill could disrupt maritime traffic through the Bab al-Mandab Strait, which connects to the Suez Canal and serves as a vital route to the Mediterranean. Such disruptions could result in multi-billion-dollar losses daily, as estimated by the United Nations.

  1. Delays and Obstacles: Efforts to inspect the deteriorating Safer have been protracted due to repeated denials of access by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who control much of northern Yemen, including Hodeida port. The rebels have demanded guarantees that the oil’s value will be used to pay the salaries of their employees.

In March of last year, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the Houthi rebels and the United Nations, establishing a framework for cooperation to facilitate the project. However, it took until May 30 for inspections to commence, with a team of experts from the private company SMIT Salvage finally arriving to prepare for the operation.

Overcoming another significant obstacle, the UN secured insurance coverage for the complex and risky operation in June.

  1. Pumping the Oil: Recent assessments by SMIT Salvage indicate that the vessel is stable enough for a ship-to-ship transfer. The Nautica, a super-tanker acquired by the UN for this purpose, arrived at the scene on Sunday after journeying from Djibouti. It is set to dock alongside the Safer, and the pumping operation is anticipated to begin within the next three days.

The process of extracting the oil could last anywhere from one week to one month, depending on the ease of pumping, as explained by Peter Berdowski, CEO of Boskalis, the parent company of SMIT Salvage. However, even after the transfer, the decaying Safer will continue to pose a residual environmental threat, retaining viscous oil residue and remaining at risk of disintegration, according to warnings from the United Nations.

Following the transfer, SMIT Salvage will assess the amount of oil sludge remaining in the Safer’s tanks. If feasible, it will be transported to a specialized facility for cleaning. If relocation is deemed too precarious, the cleaning process will be conducted on-site.

Ultimately, the Safer is slated for complete decommissioning, with its components to be recycled. The Nautica, once renamed Yemen, will remain in the vicinity as discussions persist regarding who will assume control of the ship and its cargo.

The international community closely watches this critical operation, hoping for a successful resolution that averts an environmental disaster and safeguards the livelihoods and well-being of the people in the region.

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