A catastrophic oil spill threatens off Yemen

Rust has settled into the steel of the oil tanker "safer" eaten, which has been lying off the coast for years.
Rust has eaten into the steel of the oil tanker Safer, which has been lying offshore for years. (Source: environmental organization Holm Akhdar / dpa-images)

On Wednesday, the UN, together with the Netherlands, collected money at a donor conference to avert the crisis. “We must act now,” said Kitack Lim, Secretary General of the World Maritime Organization (IMO). “It’s time now. The risks are high.”

The UN estimates the cost of the rescue at $144 million. 80 million dollars (about 76 million euros) would be needed to pump the oil from the “Safer” to another ship over several months. The aging tanker would then be towed to a shipyard and sold. At a UN donor conference on Wednesday, however, initially only around 31 million euros were raised. With the exception of the rich Gulf Emirate of Qatar, only European countries, including Germany, Switzerland and France, pledged funds. The UN and the Netherlands plan to try to raise more funds this month.

Houthi rebels agree to UN proposal

After many warnings and delays, also because of the conflict, there is movement in the rescue plan: the Houthi rebels, who have controlled nearby ports since their advance in Yemen, initially agreed in principle to the UN proposal.

Time is running out. Rust and the delayed maintenance could lead to oil leaks at any time, or the gas accumulated in the tanks could ignite and cause an explosion and large fire. It would then take about a week for the oil slick to reach shores. The already suffering fishing, livelihood for 1.7 million people, would be at an end for the time being, dirty desalination plants would endanger the water supply. The important ports of Hudaydah and Salif would probably have to close for months. That too would be devastating for the country, which imports 90 percent of its food.

Greenpeace draws dramatic scenario

Environmentalists remember the oil disaster with the tanker “Exxon Valdez” off Alaska in 1989. In the case of the “Safer” up to four times as much oil could escape. The organization Greenpeace predicts a dramatic scenario for animals, plants and corals in the Red Sea. The ACAPS analysis project estimates that a fire on the “Safer” would contaminate 500 square kilometers of agricultural land. Soot would cover papaya, citrus and mango fruits and endanger corn, tomato or sweet potato crops.

Yemen could never afford clean-up work after such a catastrophe costing around 20 billion dollars (18.9 billion euros). An oil slick up to Saudi Arabia and on the other side of the Bab al-Mandab strait could have completely different consequences: the important shipping route and access to the Suez Canal might have to be closed. For logistics and trade, it would be a dramatic rehash of the “Ever Given” case – the container ship that blocked the Suez Canal for days. Twelve percent of global trade passes through the waterway every day.

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