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Study warns of threats from decaying oil tanker off Yemen

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
A close-up view of the FSO Safer oil tanker off the port of Ras Isa, Yemen, on June 19, 2020 (photo by AFP)

Researchers have warned that a spill that is "guaranteed to happen" from a decaying oil tanker off Yemen's Red Sea coast would have a "catastrophic" impact in the war-torn country and across the region.

The Floating Storage and Offloading (FSO) Safer oil tanker was built in 1976 and has been anchored 60 km north of Yemen's western port city of Hudaydah since 1988. The vessel, which contains 1.1 million barrels of oil, was used to store Yemeni oil before the Saudi aggression on Yemen.

Researchers from Stanford University, Harvard University, and UC Berkeley, all in the US, warned of a potential oil spill from the rusting Safer tanker in a paper published in the Nature Sustainability journal on Monday.

"The public health impacts of a spill from the oil tanker Safer are expected to be catastrophic, particularly for Yemen," the study said.

According to the study, the possible spill would leave an estimated nine million people in the war-torn country without clean water and disrupt the food supply for between five and eight million people.

The researchers called for urgent action to avoid "this looming disaster," adding that the "potentially disastrous impacts remain entirely preventable" through moving the oil out of the vessel.

About 70 percent of humanitarian aid to Yemen enters the country through major ports near the Safer, namely the Hudaydah and Salif ports, and over half of Yemen's population depends on the humanitarian aid.

In the past, Yemen's Ansarullah movement has held the Saudi-led coalition fully responsible for the possible oil leakage from the deserted decaying tanker.

“We have long been calling for the maintenance of the Safer tanker. Nevertheless, the US-backed forces of aggression, besides their unjust blockade, have deliberately created obstacles and prevented any maintenance,” Mohammed Abdul-Salam has said. 

"The expected humanitarian impact of the spill is staggering," Benjamin Huynh, one of the authors of the paper and a researcher at Stanford University, told Middle East Eye.

The amount of oil on board the deteriorating vessel is four times the amount of the oil that spilled from the Exxon Valdez tanker in the US in 1989,  which was the world's most environmentally damaging oil spill.

A leak of seawater into the engine room of the Safer in May 2020 served as a wake-up call. The leak was contained, but it is unclear how long the fix may hold.

"Experts familiar with the situation say the spill is eventually guaranteed to happen in the absence of intervention, but nobody knows when the spill will occur," Huynh said.

"The oil needs to be offloaded from the Safer. The best-case scenario would be to halt the ongoing conflict and blockade, allowing negotiations over the Safer to go more smoothly. Failing that, finding another way to offload the oil or repair the vessel should be a top priority."

Saudi Arabia imposed an air, land, and sea blockade in March 2015, cutting off all ports of entry and restricting the flow of food, fuel, medicine, and essential goods into the country. The blockade has also prevented commercial access to Yemen and delayed the arrival of humanitarian aid

The possible oil spill also threatens several desalination plants and fisheries that provide an income to millions of Yemenis.

The researchers estimate that air pollution could spread and reach the central and northern areas of Yemen following the spill, increasing the number of hospitalizations from cardiovascular issues.

"With nearly 10 million losing access to clean water and seven million losing access to food supplies, we'd expect mass preventable deaths through starvation, dehydration, and water-borne illness," said Huynh.

"This is further compounded by the expected fuel and medical supplies shortage, potentially inducing widespread hospital shutdowns. Finally, we expect air pollution to significantly increase the risk of hospitalization for cardiovascular and pulmonary outcomes."

The Yemeni government has blamed the United Nation for the collapse of negotiations on the aging tanker, saying the UN ruled out most of the agreed maintenance over a lack of funding.

Saudi Arabia and its allies launched a devastating war against Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, in 2015 to reinstall former president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, a staunch ally of Riyadh.

According to the UN, Yemen is experiencing the world's worst humanitarian crisis.


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