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A Rusting Oil Tanker Off the Coast of Yemen Is an Environmental Catastrophe Waiting to Happen. Can Anyone Prevent It?

20 minute read

Nobody knows the FSO Safer like Ahmed Kulaib.

The year he joined the Hunt Oil Co. as a loading master back in 1988 was the same year the Dallas-based oil producer installed a former oil tanker it had just converted into a floating oil storage and off-loading vessel (FSO) a few miles off the coast of Yemen. The 3.1 million-barrel-capacity ship received oil pumped from the hydrocarbon-rich fields of the country’s Marib region, storing it at sea before it was off-loaded to export tankers.

The production-sharing agreement the Texans had with Yemen’s government expired in 2005, leaving the Safer Exploration and Production Exploration Company (SEPOC) in control of the ship. For years, Kulaib rose through the ranks working beside the FSO Safer’s 1,188-ft. iron hull. “I know her very well. I know her piece by piece,” Kulaib tells TIME from Cairo, where he now lives. He speaks of the Safer with a paternal nostalgia. “She was a very good vessel at a certain time. But not today.”

Kulaib was general manager at SEPOC in 2014, when members of the Shi‘ite Houthi movement swept across northern Yemen and precipitated a civil war that continues to this day. Exasperated by the corruption and chaos that ensued, Kulaib left the country a few years later. His charge, the Safer, remains in place, umbilically joined to Yemen’s Red Sea coast at the end of 4.8 miles of subsea pipeline.

The giant rusting ship has had virtually no maintenance since Kulaib departed. The sea chest valves that once fed its cooling system have rusted and can’t be completely shut, he says. The ship’s fire-extinguishing system no longer functions. And power comes only from a small generator on deck that provides lighting and heat for a skeleton crew of SEPOC employees.

FSO Safer. The precise impact of a disaster would depend on seasonal variations in weather and sea conditions.
FSO Safer. The precise impact of a disaster would depend on seasonal variations in weather and sea conditions.Courtesy Ahmed Kulaib
Deterioration on the ship, seen in early 2019, has occurred over the years, leading to small incidental spills.
Deterioration on the ship, seen in early 2019, has occurred over the years, leading to small incidental spills.Used/reprinted with permission from I.R. Consilium

On May 27, 2020, a ruptured pipe caused seawater to flood the engine room. A repair job that under normal circumstances should have taken four hours ended up taking five days of nonstop work, according to an emergency case report seen by TIME. It took a team of local divers to seal the sea chests’ external openings underwater. Only then could the SEPOC crew onboard patch up the damaged pipe in the sweltering engine room. Their repair job is just about holding, Kulaib says. More dangerous still is the oxygen that could be accumulating in the Safer’s 34 oil tanks and mixing with volatile crude fumes because of inert gases’ seeping out of corroded seals, he says. “Any spark, believe me, will end with a big explosion on that ship.”

The consequences would be unfathomable. Estimated to hold 1.14 million barrels of crude (47.9 million gal.), the Safer could spill four times the amount of oil the Exxon Valdez leaked into Prince William Sound in 1989. And it would add another dimension of catastrophe to Yemen, a country already enduring the world’s worst humanitarian crisis amid a six-year war that is only becoming more complex.

The precise impact of a disaster would depend on seasonal variations in weather and sea conditions, but the Geneva-based humanitarian agency ACAPS found that if the Safer’s oil leaked between April and June, it would affect 31,500 fishermen and 235,000 workers in fishing-related industries, and would likely shut down the vital port of Hodeida, the main entry point for a nation teetering on famine, for up to three months. Cleanup on such a spill would cost $20 billion, according to ACAPS’s projections, which U.K.-based consultancy RiskAware has modeled for the British government. That’s almost the same as the entire GDP of Yemen in 2019.

A fire on board might be even worse. Up to 5.9 million people in Yemen and 1 million more in Saudi Arabia could be exposed to very high air-pollution levels, completely overwhelming a health care system already on its knees as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Some 500 sq km of Yemen’s farmland would be covered in soot, causing crop losses for almost 10 million Yemenis and 1.5 million people in Saudi Arabia. If these worst-case scenarios come to pass, says Belal Al Mazwwda, an information analyst at ACAPS who worked on the projections, “it’s going to be the biggest man-made oil-related disaster ever recorded, based on our estimation.”

Yet despite the U.N. Environment Programme chief Inger Andersen’s warning last year that “time is running out” to avert a “looming humanitarian, economic and environmental catastrophe,” attempts by U.N. recovery teams to negotiate access to the FSO Safer with the Houthis who control it have repeatedly stalled.

For some, the Safer’s rotting mass is emblematic of the international community’s inertia in the face of the six-year war. “They are trying to do the same thing over and over again,” Raphael Veicht, Doctors Without Borders’ head of mission in Yemen, says of negotiators in the U.N.-brokered peace talks. “They’re not able to change the mediation mechanisms, they’re not able to think out of the box and they’re not able to come up with something new—and this just protracts the conflict.”

It’s hard to raise the alarm about a disaster that hasn’t happened yet. But for an example of the cost of inaction, says Ian Ralby, a globally recognized expert in maritime law and security with the consultancy IR Consilium, look no further than Beirut. In August, 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded at the city’s port, killing more than 200 people, despite Lebanese authorities having been forewarned of the risks the stockpile posed. Ralby sees history repeating itself on the FSO Safer. “It’s a dangerous game to try to wait.”

A country mired in conflict

Before it became a unified country in 1990 under President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen was split between the Yemen Arab Republic in the north and a People’s Republic in the south allied with the Soviet Union. As President, Saleh spent his political capital consolidating power rather than uniting the country. Propped up by oil-rich monarchs in neighboring Saudi Arabia, Saleh’s rule was blighted by corruption, poverty and inequality.

But after a month of street demonstrations toppled Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, many in Yemen saw an opportunity for their own “Jasmine Revolution.” Following months of protest, and after he was wounded in a bomb blast at his presidential compound, Saleh left for Saudi Arabia where he handed over power to his Vice President, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Yemen’s pro-democracy movement began to pick up the pieces, but its work was undone by a “counterrevolution, regional conspiracy, a Saudi-Emirati war, and a coup funded by Iran,” says journalist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Tawakkol Karman.

The coup was authored by the Houthis, who took control of the capital Sana‘a in early 2015 and drove Hadi and his forces south. The war followed, when a Saudi-led coalition intervened with airstrikes on Houthi territory. However, its Operation Decisive Storm proved anything but. Of almost 23,000 airstrikes the coalition has conducted in the six years since—using U.S., British and French munitions— 6,673 have targeted nonmilitary targets and 8,760 civilians have been killed, according to the Yemen Data Project. In February, President Biden used his first foreign policy speech to the State Department to announce that the U.S. would stop selling “offensive” weapons to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen.

Although the conflict is frequently cast as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and its archnemesis Iran, which has lent support to the Houthis, Yemen is in fact host to several messy wars within a war. The anti-Houthi forces are divided in their aims; the coalition includes separatist rebels in the south fighting the Saudi-backed government in Aden and United Arab Emirates–backed militias in the west, who are fighting among themselves. Then there are jihadist groups, including ISIS, targeted by controversial U.S. counterterrorism drone operations.

The country’s civilians, starved of food and water, have paid the highest price. As of February- 2021, 16 million people were going hungry, according to the U.N.’s humanitarian-affairs chief Mark Lowcock, “including 5 million who are just one step away from famine.” U.N. agencies have said at least 400,000 Yemeni children could die this year alone if conditions don’t improve.

A disaster on the FSO Safer would make things even worse. Already, 90% of Yemen’s food is imported. Some three-quarters of solid-food imports enter the country through the Houthi controlled port of Hodeida. It is that port that the Safer now threatens, as well as the smaller port of Saleef nearby. The redirection of fuel and food imports to the southern port of Aden would pose acute challenges in a country whose civil war already severely impedes the movement of goods, and would lead to spikes in food and fuel prices, according to ACAPS’s projections.

Read more: Yemen Is the World’s Worst Humanitarian Crisis. Here’s How to End it

But the conflict in Yemen also helps explain why so little has been done to address the ticking time bomb on its shores. The Houthis retain control of the ship and have repeatedly knocked back the international community’s attempts just to assess the state of the vessel, let alone extract the oil from it.

In August 2019, the U.N. had gotten as far as procuring a recovery vessel, stationed on the Djibouti coast. The night before it was supposed to depart, the de facto Houthi authorities withdrew permission.

In November 2020, the Houthis again agreed to allow a U.N. team to board the Safer for a month, to assess its condition and perform minor repairs. But the visit, which had been slated for February, had to be indefinitely postponed after the Houthis failed to sign off on mission plans. The major issue was the Houthi decision—later reversed—to “review” the mission in its entirety, which caused the U.N. to miss a deadline to rent a ship.

“Negotiations have stalled over logistical issues like where the ship will drop anchor, though these seem close to resolution,” says a U.N. source familiar with the negotiations, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely. The issues now holding up the mission should not be deal breakers, the source adds.

But even before the latest attempt stalled, some experts were convinced the long-delayed U.N. assessment would never happen. “I give the U.N. mission less than a 1% chance of going ahead” says Ralby, the maritime-law expert, who has argued that the U.N. Security Council should authorize military action to resolve the crisis. “Even if the Houthis signed their agreements in blood, their track record shows that they will renege on that agreement before anything happens.”

Back in 2015 when the Houthis took over Sana‘a, Kulaib says, they were eager to learn about how to export oil from the facility. “They wanted to get information about how we sell the cargo, how we produce, where the money is going, how much we sell for,” he says.

A previously unpublished image of a seawater-pipe leak in the engine-room compartment in May 2020.
A previously unpublished image of a seawater-pipe leak in the engine-room compartment in May 2020.Courtesy Ahmed Kulaib
A corroded portion of the tanker’s single hull in April 2019. One steel plate separates the oil on board from the sea.
A corroded portion of the tanker’s single hull in April 2019. One steel plate separates the oil on board from the sea.Used/reprinted with permission from I.R. Consilium

That never happened, and Kulaib says that operationally, reviving exports from the Safer today is totally out of the question. Although the Houthis and even the U.N. team are talking about repair and maintenance, he says, “this can never happen. It’s not repairable. The engine room is already out and can never be repaired.”

If the Safer is fit only for the scrapyard, why do the Houthis block access to it? The likeliest answer: it’s a rare point of leverage for a movement with almost no allies. The Houthis are “using the environment and the livelihoods of hundreds, if not thousands of fishermen as a bargaining tool … to blackmail the international community,” Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan told Saudi Arabia’s Arab News.

Saudi expressions of concern for Yemeni fishermen ring hollow: scores have been killed in coalition naval attacks. Still, the U.S. makes a similar argument. “Continued Houthi excuses and obstruction keeps [the U.N. team] from getting the job done,” a State Department spokesperson told TIME on April 16. “By politicizing the tanker, the Houthis risk inflicting more pain on the people of Yemen and creating massive environmental damage to the region.”

Mohamed Abdulsalam and Ahmed Al Shami, two Houthi officials contacted by TIME, did not respond to requests to discuss the state of negotiations or the safety of the SEPOC staff onboard the Safer. Publicly, Houthi officials have blamed the international community for the holdups, accusing the U.N. of serving the interests of the movement’s enemies.

“It has been proven to the world that their slogans are false and their move to serve the American, British, Saudi and Emirati aggression against the Republic of Yemen,” Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, a leader of the group, wrote on Twitter on April 4. “We reiterate that the United Nations will be held fully responsible for any leakage.”

An environmental catastrophe in waiting

It’s difficult to picture the sheer scale of a 1 million-barrel spill. When, according to Israeli officials, a formerly Libyan-owned tanker leaked 1,000 tons of crude into the Mediterranean in February 2021, it caused “one of the most severe ecological disasters to hit Israel,” the Israel Nature and Parks Authority reported. And when Japan’s MV Wakashio leaked 1,000 tons of heavy oil near Mauritius in August 2020, it blackened pristine beaches, exposed tens of thousands of cleanup volunteers to toxic pollutants, and was thought to be the cause of 50 dead dolphins and whales washing ashore, Greenpeace and local climate activists reported at the time. “If you add those two spills up, they’re less than 1% of what we’re talking about with the Safer,” says Ralby.

As well as an immediate humanitarian disaster, it would cause a lasting environmental catastrophe. The Red Sea is one of the world’s richest and most biodiverse marine ecosystems: home to endemic fish species, mangroves and the only coral reefs known to be resistant to sea-temperature rises. According to Yemeni NGO Green Dream, a Safer oil spill could impact 115 Yemeni islands in the Red Sea. It might also clog the Bab el Mandeb strait, the route to the Suez Canal through which up to 12% of global trade flows.

It was the Red Sea’s extraordinary ecology that captivated Maoz Fine when his father first took him snorkeling as a child. A few steps into the water, Fine was plunged from the dull brown expanse of Israel’s Negev Desert into a rich, colorful world. Even then, he says, “I was sure that this is what I wanted to study and understand.”

Snorkeling led to scuba diving, and eventually a career in marine biology that took Fine to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. But it was his return home that launched the research for which he is now renowned. Expecting to witness the same heartbreaking bleaching patterns that had turned other reefs into lifeless undersea boneyards, Fine was struck by the fact the northern Red Sea corals remained as vibrant as he remembered.

Most corals have a bleach after a 1° or 2°C rise in sea temperature. But those in the northern Red Sea retain a sort of biological memory from their ancestors who migrated from warmer waters. Those Fine studied can tolerate a rise of up to 7°C. And with only 10% of coral reefs expected to still be alive by 2050, these super corals could prove crucial. They’re the only ones “with an insurance policy to survive the next 50 years,” says Fine.

But it could be void in the event of a spill. Most reefs are in the shallow waters near the coast, and would be slicked with oil during low tides. Because some chemicals in Marib Light—the oil on board the Safer—are water soluble, a spill would probably affect intertidal and deep-sea corals too.

That’s the case even though the super corals are hundreds of miles north of Yemeni waters. Viviane Menezes, a marine scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, has described the Red Sea as being like a “big lagoon” with “everything connected.” An oil spill at any time of year would be disastrous, she says, but seasonally variable weather and tidal patterns make contingency planning difficult. In the summer, Red Sea currents would drag an oil slick south, threatening Eritrea and Djibouti, and potentially entering the Gulf of Aden. In winter, circular currents would swirl more of the oil north.

The winter scenario poses a particular threat to Saudi Arabia, where desalination plants dot the coastline from the southern city of Jizan near Yemen’s border up to the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba, which separates Saudi Arabia from Egypt. So acute is the kingdom’s dependence on desalinated water, which accounts for roughly half of its requirements, that in 2018, the state-run Saudi Saline Water Conversion Corporation commissioned nine new plants along the Red Sea coast.

“The risk is real. One can only look at previous oil spills at the Persian Gulf (or Arabian Gulf) and Israel, which have resulted in a shutdown of several coastal desalination plants in the past,” says Manal Shehabi, an expert on oil economies in the Gulf at Oxford University’s Institute for Energy Studies. In 2017, a pipeline spill of 100 cu m of oil in the Israeli city of Ashdod forced the three-day closure of three of the five desalination plants that supply 75% of Israel’s water. That’s only a fraction of the total volume of oil on board the Safer. “Given the country’s dependence on desalinated water … a leak of sizable amounts could actually cause a serious threat to national water supply, let alone the environment,” Shehabi says.

‘All confirm that the disaster is imminent’

But as with the war, the people who stand to be worst affected by a spill are Yemeni civilians. Every day after dawn prayers, Akram and seven friends and relatives hoist his skiff across the beach at Al Khokha, and into the Red Sea. Some days Akram, who is being identified by a pseudonym to protect his safety, says he returns to shore by sunset, his boat laden with jalebi fish, mackerel and grouper for the auction in town. On other occasions, he’s forced to stay at sea for an entire week. For moonless nights, he tells TIME through an interpreter, “we bring with us a small generator and flashlights to help us keep fishing until the morning.”

It was once possible here to make a hardscrabble living from fishing, which was -Yemen’s third largest export industry before the war. But since 2015, it has become increasingly perilous. There’s constant harassment from -Eritrean coast guards, emboldened by Yemen’s lack of government oversight. Fuel, food and equipment prices are through the roof, and the roadblocks and travel restrictions lengthen the time it takes to get fish to market, forcing fishermen to cut their prices.

Then there are the mortal dangers. “Warships make it difficult for us to move. We are not allowed to reach many islands, since they’re considered military. And now there are sea mines everywhere,” says Akram, “but it is our only source of income. Either we die from the mines or from hunger.”

Around a third of the population along this strip of the Red Sea coast has been displaced, some multiple times. Large parts of the population do not have access to primary or secondary health care, and the only commodities that make it from the coast to northern Yemen are fish and small quantities of red onions. At some points the front line is so close to the coastal road that trucks are forced to drive for miles along the beach. There, fishermen like Akram continue to ply their trade despite the risks.

One oil-spill scenario that Risk-Aware modeled for the British government in 2020 shows the entirety of fisheries on Yemen’s Red Sea coast inundated, representing a $1.5 billion loss in income over 25 years. Veicht says if poverty forces people to fish no matter how paltry the catch, “then we have to deal with the poison. It’s just a horror scenario.”

Along the Red Sea coast there is no visible mitigation taking place, says Veicht. “There is no preparation, no contingency planning, no protective measures going on at all.”

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) is one of few international NGOs that work with artisanal fishing communities in the area. Among other initiatives, the humanitarian agency has helped rebuild fish landing sites, markets and fish-testing centers damaged as a result of Yemen’s civil war. It provides cash loans to fishermen blocked from accessing fishing grounds, and equipment to help repair their nets and skiffs.

Although a spill at the Safer would undermine that work completely, aid workers say it’s simply too big and too political an issue for them to address. “I don’t think anyone in the humanitarian sector is ready to deal with a disaster of that proportion,” says NRC’s Yemen-based spokesperson Sultana Begum. “We’re underfunded, we’re overstretched and we’re constantly fighting fires.”

Still, she adds, calls for the U.N. Security Council to authorize military action are “the worst possible” recommendation. Says Begum: “Yemen doesn’t need any more military action. The ongoing negotiations are very sensitive. Something like that would destroy everything and make it harder to provide aid and keep people safe.”

For the SEPOC employees on the ship, there’s neither aid nor safety. The onboard contingent has been whittled down from a peak of 100 when the ship was operational to a skeleton crew of seven or eight. They are monitored around the clock by a squadron of Houthi militants “who don’t know about hydrocarbons,” Kulaib says. “They only know how to use the guns.”

Occasionally, a chartered fishing boat visits the Safer, bringing food, spare parts and drums of diesel for the generator. And about every month, the crew gets shore leave and is replaced by a new staff rotation. “All confirm that the disaster is imminent,” wrote engineer in charge Yasser Al Quatabi in the May 2020 emergency case report seen by TIME, “but when it will exactly happen, Allah alone knows that.”

—With reporting by Alkhatab Alrawhani/Cairo and Madeline Roache/London

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Write to Joseph Hincks at joseph.hincks@time.com