An oil spill involving a deteriorating tanker off the coast of Yemen could disrupt food and water supplies for millions of people as well as trigger an environmental catastrophe across the region.
Researchers from Stanford University, Harvard University, and UC Berkeley released models on the impact of an oil spill from the FSO Safer in a paper published in the Nature Sustainability journal.
Researchers said an action was required to stop the ‘looming disaster’ that would affect an estimated nine million people who would be without drinking water, and shut down Yemen’s main ports, worsening humanitarian crisis in the conflict-ridden country.
About 68 % of humanitarian aid to Yemen enters through the ports of Hodeidah and Salif, which lie near to the stricken Safer, and more than half of Yemen’s population depends on humanitarian aid.
FSO Safer has not been maintained since the start of the conflict in Yemen in 2015, and negotiations between the United Nations and Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who control the ship and the area of Yemen’s coast nearest to it, remain at a standstill.
The oil tanker now lies practically abandoned, with only a skeleton crew on board. However, it also contains 1.1 million barrels of oil, an amount that is four times the amount spilled in the world’s most environmentally damaging oil spill.
An oil spill was already averted in May 2020 when a leak in the engine room was patched up, but Safer’s crew continue to pump seawater out, and a spill could occur at any time due to continued deterioration, or a build-up of flammable gases, among other things.
The area of the Red Sea that would be affected by any oil spill is also home to several desalination plants that provide clean drinking water for people, including in Saudi Arabia and Eritrea, and fisheries that provide an income to millions of Yemenis.
Away from the coast, the researchers modelled the potential for air pollution to spread following a spill, and found it could reach central and northern parts of Yemen, including the capital Sanaa, increasing the risk of cardiovascular and respiratory health issues.
The damage to Safer is now believed to be irreversible, meaning steps need to be taken to make some repairs, and then safely remove the oil from the ship.
The UN has called on the Houthis to allow its experts on to the ship numerous times, and in June, the Security Council accused the Iran-allied rebels of delaying a technical assessment of the tanker, despite having given permission.