In the Red Sea, oil spill disaster averted but dangers still loom

On August 11, the last of the oil was pumped out of the FSO Safer supertanker off Yemen’s Red Sea. (Credit: UNDP)

After an unprecedented operation by the United Nations, the ageing Safer tanker off the coast of Yemen was emptied of million barrels of oil last week. But the risks haven't gone away.

Did the United Nations just save the Red Sea? At the end of last week, the UN announced with pride that a mission to empty the SFO Safer tanker of oil was finally over after years of unfinished procedures and anxieties. More than 1.1 million barrels of oil were pumped from the 32 compartmentalised bunkers of this old rusty tub, which threatened at any time to sink or explode, off the Yemeni coast.

A “happy ending” for this long story that had put a good part of the planet on the alert – even if it was only intermittently? If the threat of a gigantic oil spill is now remote, all is not resolved as the question is inextricably tied to the war that is ravaging Yemen. Beyond its own immediate impact, the "Safer affair" serves as a parable of contemporary conflicts and their inevitable ecological dimension – an often disproportionate dimension with truly incalculable costs. It is a dimension that can take precedence over all the others before being usually…immediately forgotten.

Gigantic floating warehouse

Still stuck in the Red Sea but now practically empty, the Safer is both one of the largest tankers in the world (376 metres long) and one of the least well maintained. Built in 1976 and transformed a decade later into a floating warehouse to store oil from the Marib region, the vessel has not been restored since 2015 and the start of the war in Yemen. A dozen handlers, who took turns working on board at the risk of their lives, witnessed the damage caused by time and erosion, which is particularly strong in the Red Sea: the pieces of the ship which literally fell into the sea, the successive water leaks, the toxic fumes which could at any time cause the final explosion for lack of any ventilation…

Faced with these growing dangers, environmental organisations and marine experts increasingly sounded the alarm. But the complexity of the Yemeni conflict, which involves local fighters – among them, the Houthis who control much of the country including the capital Sanaa – but also the Gulf powers and, behind them, the western states, made the equation unsolvable.

An apocalypse scenario

From the summer of 2020, the UN Security Council began meeting urgently. UN officials presented states with an apocalyptic scenario should the oil spill into the sea: millions of people could be affected, ports closed and fishing areas destroyed, and the navigation of tens of thousands of boats compromised. The sticky substance could spread and ravage hundreds of kilometres of coral and aquatic fauna, from Egypt to the Horn of Africa.

Meanwhile, the UN put a number on the cost of the potential damage: at the very least, $20 billion would be needed to deal with one of the worst oil spills in history. To this, secretary general Antonio Guterres added yet another piece of data which has now become emblematic in these times of almost generalised drought: the value of water itself was at risk, and the closure of water desalination stations which exist in the Red Sea. A disaster of “colossal scale”, the boss of the UN warned.

The solution put in place was almost as colossal as the problem itself. All-round pressure was exerted on the belligerents, Houthis on one side, the pro-Saudi coalition on the other. Above all, the United Nations embarked on an “operational plan” unveiled last April, as complex as it was risky. The UN bought its own 333-metre long oil tanker, the Nautica, manufactured in China and registered in Liberia. Amid those plans there was also the crew to appoint as well as questions related to insurance and the hiring of a company (SMIT) specialised in the riskiest rescues. This UN plan even left plenty of room for potential "crisis communication".

The Nautica takes over

The Nautica and its maintenance alone cost the UN $55 million. About twenty states – including Switzerland – have put their hands in the wallet, as well as large private groups. Oil and trading companies put $12m on the table. This was not enough to fund the entire operation, budgeted at $144m by the UN.

“In view of their annual profits, but also of what a catastrophic oil spill in the Red Sea would have meant for them, we are a little disappointed by the relatively modest contribution of the oil companies. We have to be content with it,” said a source close to the operation but not authorised to publicly express this type of remark. While $20m are still to be found, the UN has set up an unusual crowdfunding operation where individuals are called upon to participate by donating between 23 and 460 euros. "Your donation will help galvanise the support of governments and private companies, and will bring us closer to the rescue of the Red Sea", the UN said, even before it had started pumping oil from the bunkers of the Safer.

If the transfer of the cargo of the Safer makes it possible, at least for now, to breathe a sigh of relief, the "rescue of the Red Sea" proclaimed by the UN is still not guaranteed. For years, the environmental danger posed by the tanker has been intertwined with political and military issues. Before the recent lull on this front, the Houthis of the Ansar Allah movement did not want to hear of the black gold, to which they claim ownership, being moved.

Two years ago, the Houthis refused to give the necessary guarantees to UN teams to inspect the ship, precipitating the end of all discussions. The government in place in Sanaa hopes to resell the cargo of oil and to withdraw, it says, $40m, which would be used to pay the wages of its employees.

Who owns the oil?

After years spent in the hold, the quality of the oil extracted from the Safer is not guaranteed. But above all, the pro-Saudi rivals do not intend to abandon this state prerogative to the Houthis, which would further consolidate their power in the country. Result: no one knows who owns this oil that was saved with great difficulty. The UN says it is ready to take charge of the Nautica, renamed Yemen, for six months at the insistence of the Houthis. But then it's the leap into the unknown.

Ian Ralby, chief executive of IR Consilium, a maritime security company that has been involved in this project for years, does not mince his words: "The Nautica will gradually disintegrate in the waters of the Red Sea, off the coast of a highly unstable state,” he told Le Temps . Whether it's a slow deterioration or an attack due to the war, the risks remain the same, despite the transfer of the cargo, he says. "We haven't changed the amount of oil on the water, we haven't changed the potential impact of a catastrophic leak, we've just temporarily reduced the likelihood of that disaster happening."

The ghost of an ecological crisis has not quite disappeared. While the holds of the Safer had to be cleaned from top to bottom to extract the last two per cent of the cargo, mixed with sediments, the ship is also host to a whole series of hazardous materials, which make it toxic. The UN hopes to collect $20m without touching a penny from the oil thanks to the carcass of the Safer, converted into thousands of tons of scrap metal.

Moving on

But where to dismantle what remains as an ecological bomb, even emptied of its oil? While several companies have joined ranks, in India and Bangladesh in particular, NGOs have warned of the "lack of capacity" of these demolishers to carry out the work according to environmentally-friendly standards. At the end of an operation that it wants to show as exemplary, the UN "cannot afford to endanger workers, local communities and the environment in South Asia by making them pay the price of a exposure to toxic products,” writes Ingvild Jenssen, founder of Shipbreaking Platform, a coalition of NGOs specialising in this issue.

If the “parable of the Safer” has a meaning, it is therefore perhaps that, quite simply, that ecological crises are here to stay, especially in a context of violence such as the war in Yemen. “What worries me”, concludes Ian Ralby, “is the clear feeling that many want to declare this a victory and move on. But the toughest work – probably the negotiations – still looms in the near future. If this work is not done, we are only preparing for the next crisis.”

This article was originally published in French in Le Temps. It has been adapted and translated into English by Geneva Solutions. Articles from third-party websites are not licensed under Creative Commons and cannot be republished without the media’s consent.