U.N. and Yemen Houthi rebels agree on solution to avoid massive oil spill from tanker

The United Nations and Houthi rebels in Yemen found an agreement to save crude oil from a damaged tanker anchored for decades in the Red Sea. The vessel risked sinking and causing an environmental catastrophe.

FSO Safer tanker moored off the cost of Yemen's Red Sea
The FSO Safer tanker moored in the Red Sea | © Conflict and Environment Observatory

The United Nations and Yemen’s Houthi rebels signed a memorandum of understanding aimed at resolving the environmental threat posed by a tanker that has been moored off the coast of Yemen since the 1980s, the U.N. said on March 7.

The tanker carries more than 1 million barrels of crude oil but the vessel risked sinking.

The FSO Safer tanker’s long-term presence in the Red Sea has raised fears of a massive oil spill or explosion that could cause an environmental catastrophe. U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the U.N. mission in Yemen “confirmed that the risk of imminent catastrophe is very real indeed, as we have been saying here for quite some time”.

In the short term, the solution under the memorandum is to transfer the oil from the Safer to another ship.

But the MOU, dated March 5, makes clear the solution depends on mobilizing donor funds.

The United Nations shall “make all efforts to mobilize the necessary funds” and all signatories acknowledge that the authorities in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital city, “bear no financial obligations” for the project. However, Houthi authorities “are committed to providing all facilities for the success of the project”.

The U.N. will provide the temporary vessel which will remain near the Safer tanker. The operational plan is being finalized.

The Safer tanker is a Japanese-made vessel built in the 1970s and sold to the Yemeni government in the 1980s. The ship is 360 meters (1,181 feet) long with 34 storage tanks. It was bought to store up to 3 million barrels of export oil pumped from fields in Marib, a province in eastern Yemen.

But the province is currently a battlefield and all export operations related to the FSO Safer have been suspended, leaving 150,000 metric tons onboard. Maintenance on the ship stopped as well.

Yemen has been struggling with civil war since 2014, when Iranian-backed Houthi rebels took control of the capital and much of the country’s north. It then forced the government to flee to the south and to Saudi Arabia. A Saudi-led coalition entered the war in March 2015, backed by the United States and the United Arab Emirates, to try to restore President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to power.

The Houthis control Yemen’s western Red Sea ports, including Ras Issa, just 6 kilometers (about 4 miles) from where the Safer is moored, and the U.N. has been negotiating with the rebel group for years to try to get experts on the tanker to examine it.

Seawater had entered the engine compartment of the tanker, causing damage to the pipes and increasing the risk of sinking. Maintenance was no longer possible because the damage to the ship was considered irreversible.

In the longer term, the memorandum of understanding says “the United Nations is committed to providing and supplying a replacement equivalent to the FSO Safer suitable for export with a target of 18 months”.

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