A massive oil tanker about 5 miles off the coast of Yemen called the FSO Safer could break down in the months ahead — creating an environmental disaster that would dwarf the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill of 1989 — for the simple reason that it has been abandoned, according to Time

A spill or explosion would cause extreme harm to the Red Sea’s biodiversity and expose millions of people to dangerous levels of pollution, according to the United Nations

This possibility would be especially harmful to the people of Yemen, who have endured a brutal civil war since 2014 that has turned the country into the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people have died from the conflict and its repercussions.

An estimated 23.4 million people in Yemen need humanitarian aid, including 12.9 million in acute need, according to Relief Watch, which notes that roughly 19 million people in the country need food assistance, 21.9 million need access to essential health care, and 17.8 million need access to reliable water and sanitation.  

The FSO Safer can hold up to 3.1 million barrels of oil and has acted as a key transfer point for oil harvested in the region to be transported around the world. The war’s effects halted maintenance of the vessel, abandoned in 2015, and it has since become rusted “beyond repair.” Pipes, vents, entire rooms, and much more are corroding and decaying

Advocates have been warning about the Safer’s vulnerability for years and have taken stop-gap emergency measures to prevent the ship from collapsing and releasing up to 160,000 barrels of oil into the surrounding waters (one barrel of oil contains 42 gallons). For example, when a pipe in the engine room ruptured in 2020, local divers had to seal some of the boat’s external openings so that workers could repair the pipe and safeguard the room, Time reports

An oil spill on the scale of the FSO Safer would greatly worsen Yemen’s plight, making it harder for humanitarian vessels to bring food, water, and health equipment, while generating an entirely new public health crisis, the United Nations reports

In fact, communities exposed to oil spills report an extensive range of health ailments, including respiratory problems, skin conditions, heart complications, and more. These problems would be even more likely among a population ravaged by war and struggling to survive. 

Making matters worse, desalination plants in the water-scarce regions would be likely disrupted by the extensive water pollution, Time reports.

The clean-up effort from such a spill would cost $20 billion, according to the humanitarian agency ACAPS.

Providing humanitarian aid and brokering a peace agreement in the countries must be top priorities for the global community, but preventing this environmental catastrophe cannot be ignored.   

The UN is urgently calling on countries to commit $144 million — a fraction of the anticipated costs of the spill — for installing a temporary replacement vessel and conducting an emergency operation to transfer the oil aboard the FSO Safer.

The first pledging event earlier this year raised $33 million, and Saudi Arabia recently pitched in another $10 million, but the remaining amount needs to be committed soon, the UN warns. 

“If we do not receive sufficient funding urgently, the weather window to transfer the oil will close,” Auke Lootsma, resident representative of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in Yemen, said in a statement. “By October, high winds and volatile currents make the operation more dangerous and increase the risk of the ship breaking up.” 

Update, June 13, 9:15 a.m. ET: The headline of this piece has been updated to reflect that while the FSO Safer has capacity for millions of gallons of oil, it currently holds less than 1 million.


Defend the Planet

Millions of Gallons of Oil Could Soon Spill Into the Red Sea

By Joe McCarthy