"Ticking Time Bomb" Oil Tanker Threatens Food & Water Supply for Millions

FSO SAFER at risk of devastating oil spill

An abandoned oil tanker off the coast of Yemen is deteriorating rapidly, and experts say that a hull breach could have far-reaching environmental impacts and threaten millions of people's access to food and water supplies. The FSO SAFER tanker holds 1.1 million barrels of oil -- more than four times the amount that was spilled by the Exxon Valdez 2. But an ongoing civil war has prevented UN inspectors from accessing the vessel, leaving the Red Sea in peril.

Why This Matters

An oil spill from the FSO SAFER poses serious risk to various natural resources already made vulnerable by climate change. The Red Sea is a haven for biodiversity and contains coral reefs that have somewhat miraculously avoided mass bleaching events. But experts say these ecosystems are incredibly delicate and that an oil spill of magnitude could threaten their long-term health. In addition to wildlife habitat, fisheries in the Red Sea provide a food source for up to 8.4 million people. A spill would additionally disrupt sea freight, which analysts say would raise the price of fuel used for pumping water for 8 million Yemenis by up to 80%.

Lost at Sea

The tanker has been floating off the Yemeni port of Ras Isa since 2015 and due to the sea's high salinity, has experienced destabilizing corrosion, such as a leak in the engine room in May 2020. In July, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the vessel a "ticking time bomb" and has called for swift action to offload the contained oil. The international body also emphasized the need for a strategic response plan should there be a spill. Experts are concerned about the potential for another Exxon Valdez, which devastated 1,300 miles of US coastline and continues to impact coastal communities 30 years later.

Anything but Safe

A paper published Monday in the Nature Sustainability journal has evaluated just how damaging a spill of this scale could be. If a spill occurs, up to 85.2% of Yemen's Red Sea fisheries will be at risk within one week and up to 100% within three weeks, depending on the season. Any combustion caused by a spill could also impact air quality for millions of people, increasing respiratory and cardiovascular-related hospitalizations.

The study's authors say: "The possibility of a spill is increasingly likely.... by breach of the hull due to inclement weather; combustion could occur through build-up of volatile gases aboard the vessel or direct attack on the vessel."

Al Jazeera: Can an environmental catastrophe in Yemen be averted? | Inside Story, July 18, 2020.

60 Minutes: Remembering the Exxon Valdez oil spill 30 years later, March 24, 2019.