On Top of Its Civil War, Yemen Might be Facing One of the World’s Biggest Oil Spills Yet

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

On July 16, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Inger Andersen briefed the Security Council on the risk of a colossal oil spill on the coast of Yemen. The FSO SAFER is a floating storage and offloading unit, anchored about five miles off the coast of Ras Isa, Yemen. This 45-year-old ship holds around 48 million gallons of crude oil and was bought by the Yemeni government in the 1980s. The FSO SAFER has been untended for the last five years, increasing it’s risk of sinking or exploding at any given time due to a lack of maintenance or accidental ignition respectively. “[A spill could] directly affect millions of people in a country that is already enduring the world’s largest humanitarian emergency,” Andersen said.

Starting in 2015, the civil war between rebel Houthis and the Yemeni government has caused more than 17,500 civilian casualties. The tanker has gone unchecked since the war started despite the efforts of the UN. In 2019, after a seawater leak was found in the engine room, the UN was given the green light by the Houthis, who control the area, to have the ship undergo maintenance only to deny access the night before the mission. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Houthi Affairs Specialist Hussain Al Bukhaiti said the last-minute cancellation was due to the involvement of an untrustworthy Malaysian third party but no further specifics were provided. The UN was again given a green light by the Houthis for examination on July 13th, however, UN Humanitarian Affairs Chief Mark Lowcock warns the need for a contingency plan recalling the situation in 2019.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution scientist Christopher Reddy, who studies environmental responses to oil spills, further explained the situation. “The Yemen spill is of concern because it’s close to a coastline, …[and] a lot of the oil could get close to land or even land on land.” Contrary to Andersen’s claim that the ship would release four times more oil than the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, Reddy told me that this may not necessarily be true. “There are a lot of things we just know don’t know… [however] we can say that [the tanker] has a large amount of oil, is close to people, and has the potential to create a lot of harm to fish and other plants and animals that live in the [Red Sea].”

The biggest concern of the UN is the potential impact on fishermen and marine traffic. “[Crude oil] adds toxic compounds to water… [causing] fish to die from it,” said Reddy. The killing or toxifying of fish in the Red Sea would result in a reduction of a food source for a country whose hunger rate is more than 76%.

In addition, Andersen warned the UN that the closure of nearby major port Al Houdeidah for five to six months in response to the spill could cause a 200% increase of fuel and food costs in Yemen. “Even if the response activities were to be initiated immediately after the oil spill event, it would nonetheless take years for the ecosystems and the economies to recover,” Andersen said.

It is possible to prevent this catastrophe. There are currently three proposed ways to prevent the oil spill: offload the oil, tow away the tanker, or possibly dismantle the FSO Safer in an environmental-sound manner. However, In Andersen’s briefing, she continues to say, “These elements are being discussed at different levels with the different shareholders. The immediate priority remains the same: assessment and light repairs.”

Did you know about the oil tanker in Yemen at risk of spilling 48 million gallons of oil? If so, how do you think the global community could prevent it?

“I actually wasn’t aware of this fact, and it’s instances like these that remind me how important it is to be a global citizen and not just pay attention to domestic affairs. As Americans, we can’t sit by and exclude ourselves from international relations – the world has become far too interconnected in recent times. The global community is intended to create balance by keeping every nation in check. In this instance, international authorities can impose taxes on future oil trade on Yemen or revoke existing trade agreements if they fail to meet the expectations set by the global community. In doing so, the country is incentivized to think carefully about the costs of their actions at risk of losing important alliances and resources.” Evan Williams, 18, Rising Freshman at Purdue University, South Riding, Virginia

“I did know about the decaying oil tanker in the Red Sea. However and rather, unfortunately, due to the state of the world we are living in right now, the oil tanker was not presented as the truly monumental threat that it is — especially since the media attention these days is crowded by all things COVID-19. Preventing this spill is crucially important to save the livelihoods and health of many people of Yemen as well as the biodiversity of the Red Sea and surrounding areas. From an environmentalism standpoint, this one tanker has the potential to cause decades of irreversible damage. The same message stands when thinking as a humanitarian. Yemen has already seen heavy economic decline due to war in conjunction with the coronavirus pandemic. There have been record-high counts of food insecurity and homelessness amid the population. If the tanker situation is not carefully handled, Yemen may have to face the reality of having many more fishermen out of jobs, poisonous gas, and a thousand other concerns on top of the already fragile state that they are currently in.” Anonymous, 19, Rising Sophomore at Washington University at St. Louis, Herndon, Virginia

“I did not know about this situation but after doing some research I see how detrimental the situation could get. However, I think the best bet is to leave the tanker where it is and create global pressure on the Houthis to allow the UN to do check-ups on the tanker. I believe that if the UN was to move the oil barrels, they are at a higher risk of spilling the barrel and even a small spill could have detrimental effects on Yemen considering its current situation.” Anonymous, 15, Rising Sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Chantilly, Virginia