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Idle cargo and oil tanker ships at the port of Hodeida, Yemen.  © 2018 AP Photo/Hani Mohammed

(Beirut) – Governments should immediately support a salvage operation to prevent a supertanker moored off Yemen’s coast from spilling hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil into the Red Sea, 20 human rights and humanitarian groups said in a joint statement released today.

The FSO Safer, an oil storage tanker moored 32 nautical miles from the key port city of Hodeida, could explode or rupture at any time, threatening an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe, according to the United Nations. On June 13, the UN announced that salvage operations could not begin due to insufficient funding and opened a US$20 million crowdfunding campaign to make up the funding gap.

“The lack of urgency from governments has brought Yemen perilously close to a new humanitarian and environmental disaster,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s incomprehensible that the UN is now reduced to crowdfunding $20 million when the potential damages could be a thousand times greater. Donors should immediately step up to address this looming risk.”

The Safer has been stranded without maintenance off Yemen’s coast since 2015 and holds an estimated 1.14 million barrels of light crude oil, four times the amount of oil spilled from the Exxon Valdez, and enough to make the Safer the fifth largest oil spill in history. The supertanker is at imminent risk of explosion because of increased corrosion from the lack of maintenance – the former head of the Yemeni oil company that owns the tanker described it to a journalist as “a bomb” – and the UN reports that with the necessary funding, it is ready to begin an emergency salvage operation that would transfer the oil to a secure vessel.

Satellite image of the Safer supertanker off Yemen’s coast taken on June 17,  2020, one month before experts warned the UN Security Council that unless Houthi authorities let the UN secure the aging vessel, its 1.1 million barrels of crude oil could spill and wreak environmental and humanitarian havoc.  Satellite Image © 2020 Maxar Technologies/Getty Images 

The UN estimates that the cost of cleanup for an oil spill from the Safer would be at least $20 billion, excluding broader economic consequences.

The Houthi authorities, who control Hodeida, signed a memorandum of understanding with the UN on March 5 agreeing to facilitate a two-stage UN-coordinated plan to prevent a disaster. The transfer of the oil from the Safer to a secure vessel is the first step. This four-month long operation would cost $80 million, one-quarter of which is still needed. The second stage involves installing a replacement vessel within 18 months. A total of $144 million is required for both stages.

Fossil fuel use is not only driving the climate crisis, but its extraction risks a series of environmental and human rights harms. These risks are even greater in conflict areas, like Yemen, the groups said, because of diminished environmental governance and government oversight due to shrinking budgets, access constraints or other safety and security issues, alongside the possibility of deliberate or accidental attacks on fossil fuel sites.

The UN has warned that the emergency salvage operation will become even more dangerous by October as high winds and volatile currents increase in the Red Sea.

In July 2020, the UN Environment Programme warned that an oil spill from the vessel could have “serious, long-lasting environmental impact” on one of the most important repositories of biodiversity on the planet, possibly destroying coastal wetlands, mangroves, seagrass, and coral reefs for generations.

Location of the Safer supertanker. © Human Rights Watch

The environmental destruction would have devastating long-term economic consequences for the approximately 28 million people in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, Sudan, Egypt, and Djibouti, who rely on these areas for their livelihoods. Given that the Safer is also located close to critical global shipping lanes, there are numerous other likely harmful economic consequences that would result from a spill.

An oil spill could shut down Hodeida’s port, affecting millions of Yemenis who depend on imports of food and other essential goods. Between 80 and 90 percent of the Yemeni population’s basic needs are delivered by commercial imports and aid, approximately 70 percent of which enter through Hodeida.

Thousands of civilians in Yemen have died and been injured since 2015 in the armed conflict  between the Saudi and United Arab Emirates-led coalition and the Houthi armed group, which contributed to what the UN called the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.

The Yemeni state-run Safer Exploration and Production Operations Company (SEPOC), which owns the FSO Safer, has not been able to maintain the vessels since 2015, causing corrosion. Seawater entered the supertanker’s engine compartment in May 2020, heightening concerns about a possible oil spill or explosion. Before Houthi authorities signed the March agreement with the UN in March to allow for a salvage plan to be implemented, they had held up UN access to the ship.

In May, donors pledged $33 million to support the UN plan. Donors included the Netherlands, Germany, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Qatar, Sweden, Norway, Finland, France, Switzerland, and Luxembourg. The United States and Saudi Arabia also reportedly committed to donating to the salvage effort.

“Donating $20 million today to end the Safer tanker explosion risk means averting a disaster that will cost billions in environmental clean-up costs alone, while the human rights, humanitarian, and other environmental costs will be incalculable,” Page said.

Correction

7/18/2022: This press release has been updated to reflect the correct number of signatories for the joint statement. 

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