As laden tanker decays off Yemen, experts warn oil spill will ravage Red Sea

Scholars from Israel and elsewhere issue stark plea for international community to remove 1 million barrels from ship stuck for five years, or face devastation of vital ecosystem

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

The FSO Safer in an undated photo. (Courtesy: Safer Exploration and Production Operations)
The FSO Safer in an undated photo. (Courtesy: Safer Exploration and Production Operations)

A catastrophic and “eminently preventable” oil spill in the Red Sea is waiting to happen unless the international community gets its act together to empty a million barrels of oil from a tanker that has been decaying off the coast of Yemen for five years, marine experts from Israel and elsewhere pleaded Tuesday, warning of a “regional environmental and humanitarian disaster.”

The potential release of a million barrels of oil from the rapidly decaying FSO Safer would ruin the health and livelihoods of millions of people in the region and cause severe damage to thousands of kilometers of coral reefs, including those of the northern Red Sea and Gulf of Eilat/Aqaba, which appear to be the most robust in the face of climate change, six experts from Israel and elsewhere wrote in a wake-up call published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.

The United Nations has been trying for years to get inspectors aboard the vessel, to no avail, until two weeks ago, when Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who control access to the tanker, reversed their steadfast refusal to let anyone near.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters that the staff and equipment could be ready by late January or early February.

Decay inside the FSO Safer, moored off Ras Issa port, Yemen, in 2019. (I.R. Consilium via AP)

Prof. Maoz Fine, one of the report’s Israeli authors, told The Times of Israel that the article was submitted before the Houthis relented a fortnight ago.

“They’ve given permission, which they’ve given and withdrawn in the past. We need to see that things actually happen now and that the oil is removed and the tanker is dragged to the shore to be dismantled,” he said.

It’s unclear how long the tanker has until disaster strikes, but signs point to time rapidly running out.

In May, seawater breached the hull and entered the vessel’s engine compartment, causing damage to the pipelines and increasing the risk of sinking. In September there were reports that Saudi Arabia had spotted oil nearby.

“The Safer has been stranded and deteriorating off Yemen’s coast since 2015, giving the world the most advanced warning ever of a major oil spill. But this unique opportunity is being squandered,” the report said.

“A one million-barrel leak guarantees a regional environmental and humanitarian disaster… Devastation to the health and livelihoods of millions of people living in half a dozen countries along the Red Sea coast would be assured. The air they breathe, the food they harvest at sea, and their water desalination are all at immediate risk,” the authors wrote.

The Gulf of Eilat. (Dr. Ilan Malster, Environmental Protection Ministry)

“In addition, the spill will affect the rest of the international community by degrading a critical global resource. The coral reefs of the northern Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba are understood to be among the last reef ecosystems in the world to thrive beyond mid-century. Our last chance to pump off the oil in the vessel and stockpile oil booms regionally to contain an imminent spill is quickly disappearing,” the authors warned.

The report notes that coral reefs line almost all 4,000 kilometers of the Red Sea’s coastline and also wrap around several islands, adding that the urgency for action is further underpinned by models showing that a spill during the winter would likely see oil dispersed further north than one during summer because of ocean currents.

In the researchers’ view, the “imminent threat to a unique global natural resource” justifies getting to the tanker to pump off the oil “by all means necessary.”

The experts called for a regional strategy to be designed to cope with oil leaks, given that 4.8 million barrels of crude oil and refined petroleum products pass daily through the Bab el Mandeb strait — between Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula, and Djibouti and Eritrea in the Horn of Africa — into the Red Sea en route to Europe, the US and Asia via the Suez Canal.

Oil companies should be made to contribute to a UN-mandated and regulated fund for spill mitigation and an online marine pollution reporting system should be established similar to that operating between countries in the northwest Pacific, they advised.

Three of the six report authors are from Israel: Yael Amitai from the Kinneret Limnological Laboratory, part of the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute; Hezi Gildor of the Hebrew University’s Institute of Earth Sciences in Jerusalem; and Fine of the Faculty of Life Sciences at Bar-Ilan University and the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Science in Eilat on the Red Sea coast.

The other researchers are from Germany, Switzerland and the US.

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