Authors: Meena Miriam Yust and Arshad M. Khan
The Red Sea is a rich marine haven, diverse and home to hundreds of species of fish and coral colonies. At its southern mouth, it also harbors an almost half-century old static oil tanker.
If one were to recount the history of Safer, this fuel storage and off-loading (FSO) vessel, most would find it impossible to believe. Thirty years ago, it was grounded about five miles off the west coast of Yemen; it is still there! To make matters worse, it is also loaded with almost all of its original cargo. This amounts to 1.1 million barrels of oil or four times what was on the Exxon Valdez, which caused the worst environmental disaster in US history.
Maintenance of the ship stopped in 2015 when the Yemen civil war began, presumably because the operation was based in Yemen. Built 45 years ago, the rusting vessel is now in danger of breaking up.
In April 2022, the UN unveiled a plan which had been largely funded by the summer to follow. It had also secured the backing of the official Yemeni government and the de facto controlling authorities.
The plan calls for installing a replacement for the FSO Safer within an 18-month period and then an emergency operation over four months to transfer the oil to a safe temporary vessel and void the immediate threat. But the plan has gone nowhere.
As reported by Inter Press Service (IPS), Paul Horsman of Greenpeace International is convinced of the seriousness of the problem and states, “We are staring a major disaster in the face.” He holds the UNDP (United Nations Development Program) fully responsible, accusing it of jeopardizing an agreement that took years to negotiate.
A breakup of the vessel would be a monumental disaster for it would destroy the livelihood of Yemeni fishermen and put at peril the ecology of the Red Sea.
The Red Sea’s varied ecological environment is home to several hundred species of fish and a striking 600-year-old coral colony. The sea serves as habitat for many endangered species including the hawksbill sea turtle and the halavi guitarfish. Several species of sharks and dolphins live in these waters, and the sea has the third largest population of dugong in the world. A large marine mammal, the dugong is cousin to the manatee and listed by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) as a species vulnerable to extinction. If endangered, scientists believe recovery would be hampered by its slow reproduction rate.
“If the Safer leaks, or worse explodes, it is the UNDP that will carry the blame,” says Horsman adding, “The technology and expertise are available … they [UNDP] should just get out of the way. …”
But the UNDP has its own internal bureaucracy. According to Russell Geekie who is a UN Senior Communications Advisor on site, the UNDP is required to work with other UN agencies and partners. Complicating the issue is the political crisis in Yemen.
Also another major challenge now is the limited availability of suitable storage vessels to off-load the oil, mostly due to the war in Ukraine which has substantially increased their price.
In September 2022, $77 million was pledged at the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting, although another $38 million for a double-hulled storage vessel to hold the oil is still lacking. As an update, donors have now deposited $73.4 million and pledged another $10 million.
So the blame game continues and the numbers in millions of dollars plod through the UNDP bureaucracy. Small potatoes, when one realizes the cost of an oil-spill clean-up there, should it happen, is estimated at $20 billion. This excludes the humanitarian catastrophe it would cause in an already war-torn Yemen as well as the parts of Somalia that depend on the fisheries in the area.
Human folly, tragedy and irony go hand-in-hand as all of the above is transpiring during Achim Steiner’s tenure as head of UNDP. A Brazilian of German descent, he has also served as Director General of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
President Biden professes to be an environmentalist, although he has supported oil on occasion for energy security. Surely he could do something to avert a terrible disaster. But then the Red Sea is far away and the Yemenis and Somalis don’t vote in the US elections.
Authors’ Note: This piece first appeared in CommonDreams.org.