Note to correspondents from the Office of the Spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General. Yemen: Safer oil tanker
The United Nations stresses the urgency of resolving the ongoing threat posed by the Safer oil tanker, an aging floating storage and offloading vessel moored off Yemen’s west coast, 60 kilometres north of Hudaydah.
Since the beginning of the conflict in Yemen in 2015, the tanker has received almost no maintenance or upkeep while holding some 1.1 million barrels of crude oil. Safer’s structure, equipment and operating systems are deteriorating, leaving the tanker at risk of leaking, exploding or catching fire.
On 27 May, seawater leaked into the engine room, threatening to destabilize and sink the entire vessel, and potentially releasing all the oil into the sea. A temporary fix succeeded in containing the leak, but it is unlikely to hold for very long. A spill would have catastrophic environmental and humanitarian consequences, including destroying livelihoods and shutting down Hudaydah port, a vital lifeline for millions of Yemenis who depend on commercial imports and humanitarian aid.
The tragic Beirut explosion on 4 August, and the recent alarming oil spill in Mauritius demand the world’s vigilance and urgent action to avert preventable loss of life and livelihoods where possible. For now, this remains a preventable tragedy. But not for long. If a spill, an explosion or a fire were to occur, mounting an effective response would be severely constrained given the limited availability of specialist equipment and personnel amidst the ongoing conflict.
Responding to requests by the Yemeni parties to the conflict, the United Nations remains ready and eager to assist with Safer with two priorities in mind: (i) to conduct a technical assessment that will provide the hard data required to determine the best course of action to neutralize the threat posed by the tanker; and (ii) to make any feasible repairs while on site during the assessment. The mission is ready to deploy pending authorization by the Houthi movement (also known as Ansar Allah) who control the territory where the Safer is moored.
Research by independent experts indicates that an oil spill could destroy Red Sea ecosystems on which almost 30 million people depend, including 1.6 million Yemenis. All the fisheries along the Yemeni west coast would be impacted within days and the livelihoods of the fishing communities would collapse, at a time when 90 per cent of these populations are already dependent on humanitarian aid. The shores of Hudaydah, Hajjah and Taiz will likely be the worst-hit.
An oil spill could lead to the closure of the key port of Hudaydah for up to six months. Experts estimate that a six-month closure would increase fuel prices in Yemen by 200 per cent for months, double food prices and hinder the delivery of vital humanitarian aid to millions of Yemenis. At this time of economic hardship, the risk of famine may again already be on the horizon. Yemen cannot afford the closure of its largest port as it is almost entirely dependent on imports for its basic needs of food and medicines.
Other Red Sea littoral countries, including Djibouti, Eritrea and Saudi Arabia, would suffer as well. A spill could also debilitate one of the world’s busiest commercial shipping routes through the Red Sea, which accounts for about 10 per cent of global trade. However, expert research indicates that the vast majority of affected people would be millions of Yemenis along the west coast whose livelihoods would be destroyed and in mainly northern communities away from the coast that rely on Hudaydah port to bring in essential goods.
If fire erupts on Safer for any reason, more than 8.4 million people would be exposed to harmful levels of pollutants.
Overall, the impact of an oil spill from the Safer tanker would cost an estimated $1.5 billion over 25 years.
The Government of Yemen and the Houthis first approached the United Nations to provide support in resolving the Safer tanker issue in early 2018. But the escalation of military hostilities on the Yemeni west coast throughout most of 2018 made safe access to the tanker impossible. With the Yemeni Parties concluding the Stockholm Agreement in December 2018, which included a governorate-wide ceasefire in Hudaydah, safe access became possible once again.
In 2019, both Yemeni parties approved the deployment of a UN technical team to assess the damage and conduct any feasible immediate repairs. The de facto authorities granted the United Nations the travel authorizations to come to Hudaydah but did not provide the final clearances necessary to access the tanker by sea. They further raised several demands (including some unrelated to Safer) that eventually led to the cancellation of the mission. Since then, the United Nations has repeatedly attempted to obtain the required authorizations to deploy the expert team.
Following the seawater leak into the engine room in May, the United Nations intensified its efforts to deploy a technical assessment mission to the tanker with the clear objective of assessing the tanker’s condition, undertaking any feasible initial repairs, and formulating urgently needed recommendations on what further action is required. This expert-driven assessment is a crucial first step to understanding the scope of the problem and deciding what repairs are possible, what equipment and resources are needed to conduct such repairs and determining the next course of action. The United Nations has no prejudgments on the outcome of the assessment mission and will support any option that results in a safe, secure and environmentally-sound solution.
Planning and executing a sustainable solution will not be possible without independent experts first assessing the damage. And the assessment cannot be completed if the experts are not granted the required visas and permits to deploy to the tanker.
Averting this calamity should not be politicized. It is about people’s lives and futures. The Yemeni people are already facing impossible odds: a war, a free-falling economy, diseases, shattered public institutions, unreliable infrastructure, hunger, and uncertain futures. Safer is a solvable problem and does not need to be added to their many other burdens.
New York, 14 August 2020
To read the Statement attributable to the Spokesman for the Secretary General - on the Safer oil tanker off the coast of Yemen click here