UN Warns of Pollution Risk from Decaying Yemeni FSO

The Safer and her mooring turret (Conflict and Environment Observatory)

Published Jul 23, 2019 7:18 PM by The Maritime Executive

The UN reports that its inspectors have not been able to access the aging FSO Safer off Ras Issa, Yemen, adding to concerns that the vessel poses a serious environmental hazard to the Red Sea region. 

The 1976-built Safer has been inactive and unmaintained since the outbreak of Yemen's civil war in 2015, and she is believed to have a cargo of about 1.1 million barrels of crude oil stored in her tanks. UN relief officials have warned repeatedly that the condition of the single-hulled FSO is unknown, and in the event of a casualty she could spill a significant quantity of petroleum into the sensitive marine environment of the Red Sea. 

However, the Houthi rebel forces that control the area have not allowed international inspectors to access the Safer, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. 

"Ansar Allah [Houthi] authorities . . . continue to delay a UN technical assessment of the decaying Safer tanker, which as I have told you many times before, threatens to spill up to 1.1 million barrels of oil into the Red Sea," said under-secretary-general for relief Mark Lowcock in a briefing for the UNSC last week. "The UN assessment team had planned to deploy to the tanker next week, but the necessary permits remain pending with the Ansar Allah authorities . . .  I would just like to note that this is additionally frustrating when one recalls that the same authorities wrote to the United Nations early last year requesting assistance with the tanker and promising to facilitate our work."

The Atlantic Council has highlighted the possibility that the Safer could explode, not just leak, and described it in a recent op-ed as a "floating bomb." The vessel has contained the same oil cargo without inert gas protection for four years, increasing the odds of ignition in the event of a casualty. 

If a blast and spill occurred, the Atlantic Council warned that it could impact operations at the nearby port of Hodeidah, the mission-critical hub for UN aid shipments and relief work in Yemen. Millions of Yemeni civilians would be at risk of famine without the foreign assistance delivered through Hodeidah, which handles the majority of aid and commercial food imports for northern Yemen.