Najib Saab 25/9/2022

The persistent delay in addressing the issue of the aging supertanker Safer, used as a floating storage and offloading vessel, which threatens unprecedented pollution in the Red Sea region, proves that the world often does not learn from past experience. It seems that we ignore time bombs, as long as they are noiseless. Safer, which holds more than a million barrels of crude oil, reached the brink of replicating the case of Beirut port explosion in 2020: all officials were aware that there were thousands of tons of explosive ammonium nitrate stored in the port, but they ignored it because the explosives were dormant. This is exactly the nature of a time bomb: if we wait for the detonator to sound and the smoke to rise, then it will have been too late to stop the explosion.

Safer is an old American oil tanker, built in 1976, and later converted into a floating storage and offloading vessel, 376 meters long with a capacity of more than 3 million barrels. It has been moored 7 kilometers off Yemen’s west coast since 1988, where it was used to store and offload oil from the fields around Ma’rib. The American partner operating company at the time found that converting the tanker into a storage and offloading vessel was faster and cheaper than building permanent onshore facilities. Later, Safer’s ownership was transferred to the Yemeni National Oil Company, before it ceased operations in 2015 due to the war. But maintenance had stopped years before that, due to plans to build tanks and permanent loading facilities onshore. Therefore, the tanker has been considered obsolete since 2016, due to the lack of necessary maintenance and the cessation of periodic technical inspection.

Rust hit large parts of the tanker, generators and firefighting systems collapsed, and air entered the storage tanks, exposing the oil to oxidation. All this makes Safer a time bomb liable to explode at any moment: rust and cracks may cause massive oil spills, and strong waves and hurricanes may lead to completely wrecking the ship and causing its contents to flow right into the sea; this may be accompanied by explosions and fires. In addition, any friction or a large increase in temperature may ignite a fire that leads to rupturing the tanker and leaking the rest of its contents.

What we are envisaging here is not by any means an extreme fantasy scenario, since all the elements of the disaster have been in place for years. Suffice to put the magnitude of the expected disaster into perspective is that Safer carries at least 4 times as much oil as spilled by the Exxon Valdez in 1980 on the shores of Alaska, which became the epicenter of the worst oil pollution disasters. The difference is that the Exxon Valdez disaster, like other major oil spills, was the result of an unexpected and unintended accident. In the case of Safer, the catastrophe would be premeditated and deliberate.

This is not the first time that the environment has been a hostage and victim of wars and conflicts, as the war in Ukraine has recently shown. The Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant is being held hostage, and global food and energy have been used as weapons in this war, which may threaten to delay the implementation of climate commitments and put global environmental security at risk.

What are the environmental impacts if Safer is wrecked or explodes, and this will inevitably happen if urgent measures are not implemented to prevent the disaster? If its contents of 1.1 million barrels of crude oil were to flow into the sea, the entire region would face an unprecedented environmental and human catastrophe that goes beyond Yemen. The Red Sea resembles a large lake, linked by the narrow strait Bab al-Mandab to the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, while the Suez Canal links it to the Mediterranean. In the event of a disaster, the huge oil slick would hit fisheries, coral reefs and coastal mangrove forests, threatening food security, tourism and biodiversity, and depriving millions of their livelihoods. The work of many onshore desalination and electricity plants, as well as factories, will be disrupted. Thousands of kilometers of coastline will be exposed to soil and fresh water sources pollution, affecting the health and jobs of millions of people. Navigation in Bab al-Mandab and the Suez Canal may be halted for months.

But if the shipwreck coincides with, or is preceded by, an explosion and a fire, the damage will be twofold, as the oil spill will be accompanied by toxic gases covering the skies of the Red Sea region. This would have catastrophic effects on human health, as well as on agriculture, due to soil pollution from toxins falling from the air.

If the war conditions in the past years had hindered dealing with this issue, with Houthi rebels holding the ship hostage, the ceasefire that went into effect months ago opened a window for a solution, and gave impetus to the interim rescue initiative that the United Nations had launched a long time ago. The first phase includes unloading the contents of Safer into other tankers at a cost of $80 million, to be followed by the proper disposal of the dilapidated hull, at a cost of $60 million. The United Nations announced last week that it still needed additional pledges of $12 million to launch the first phase before winter. Although pledges amounted to $68 million, what actually materialized did not exceed $10 million. A last minute additional contribution from the Netherlands bridged the gap, promising to put the rescue operation in action.

Now that the financing is secured, fast action is needed. If the oil spill precedes the safe emptying of the tanks, cost of a cleanup operation will exceed $20 billion, in addition to economic and health losses. This is more than 200 times the estimated cost of addressing the challenge to prevent a mammoth disaster. In addition, it will be possible to recover part of the costs by selling a quantity of the retrieved oil, based on its quality after years of being stored in bad conditions.

But if the die is cast, and the disaster occurs before Safer is emptied, then it is not permissible to call it an accident. It would be, like the Beirut port explosion, a man-made disaster; because everyone knew about it and neglected acting in time. This applies to climate change, the greatest man-made disaster, where those who have the power to decide are aware of the risks and are still reluctant to act.

Can we trust those who brought a relatively modest problem like Safer to the brink of disaster to adequately deal with the complex challenge of climate change? The international community needs to be more resolute on climate action, as it is risky to wait for a last-minute savior as in the case of Safer. On climate, the whole world has to unite in action, now.