Perhaps you can picture the scene. An international team is in a race against time to save the world from an environmental catastrophe. In perilous conditions, with a war raging just kilometres away, our heroes have to siphon more than millions barrels of oil from a rapidly decaying tanker that could rupture or explode at any moment, threatening the ecology, water supplies and security of the Middle East for decades to come.
Meanwhile, the missiles of a militant group remained trained on the operation waiting for a provocation to attack.
This is no Hollywood script but a drama that is quietly taking place just 4.8 nautical miles off the coast of war-torn Yemen. A specialist UN team is about to start the hazardous operation to remove the oil from the stricken tanker, the FSO Safer. Failure could lead to an environmental disaster five times worse than the 1989 Exxon Valdes oil spill that devastated Alaska.
It may be far too early to breathe a sigh of relief but it is right to celebrate the fact that the UN has started its crucial mission to offload Safer – pronounced “Saffer”. In a world distracted by war in Ukraine and a pandemic, it has taken much to get to this point.
The former Esso Japan was constructed as a super tanker in 1976 and converted later into a floating storage and offloading facility for oil. Since 1988, it has been positioned off the crucial Yemeni port of Hodeidah and the Ras Isa peninsula as a holding terminal for oil from Marib.
Safer was abandoned early in 2015 after it and the surrounding western Yemeni coastline fell into the hands of the Iran-backed Houthis. It contains some 1.14 million barrels of oil and the Houthis quickly saw both the vessel and its cargo, valued at about $80 million, as bargaining chips in their dealings with the Yemeni government and the international community.
In the intervening years, the vessel has been a ticking time bomb. It has deteriorated significantly in recent years. In July 2020, rumours of a leak in the machine room prompted an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council.
In 2019, the Houthis withdrew from a UN plan to begin the off-loading process. Since then, the estimated costs of the operation have only spiralled – from about $95 million to $129 million.
In recent months, renewed impetus for action has been led by the British and the Netherlands. Last month, Andrew Mitchell, the UK’s Development Minister, and his Dutch counterpart, Liesje Schreinemacher, led a “pledging summit”, to raise the money needed to deal with the Safer. At the time, Mr Mitchell told The National, “be in no doubt, this is a looming ecological and environmental disaster”.
The UK offered to come up with a contribution of $10 million. However, it has taken much desk-banging before a collection plate was handed around. The costs of a major spill would run into the many billions, leaving aside the ecological devastation to the Red Sea, its coastlines and the de-salination plants that provide much-needed water to countries including Saudi Arabia.
A major spill would also imperil shipping lanes, including the Suez Canal, which could severely affect global trade. We all remember the rising panic caused by the six-day blockage of Suez in March 2021 when the container ship, the Ever Given, managed to wedge itself into opposite banks of the canal. An immediate consequence would be the closure of Hodeidah, a vital humanitarian aid port for 17 million Yemenis.
In March, the UN Development Programme purchased the Safer along with a large tanker, the Nautica, which is needed to receive the oil. The normalisation of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia has proved crucial not only in getting Yemen peace talks going but also in ending the Safer threat. Over the past months, Saudi officials have been talking to the Houthis.
The UN has raised $114 million of the $129 million needed for the operation. Houthi missiles remain trained on the Safer but the militants will allow UN salvagers to off-load the oil from the vessel to the Nautica, which has is currently moored nearby off Djibouti.
The UNDP has also contracted a salvage vessel, the Ndeavor, for a two-stage operation. It has recently arrived on site for stage 1. The Ndeavor’s crew of expert salvagers will inspect the Safer and undertake all necessary work to make it secure for the transfer of oil to the Nautica.
The operation to end the threat posed by the Safer has begun in earnest and we must all wish the UN’s salvage team “godspeed” in the difficult weeks ahead. That must be good news for everyone and a possible sign of hope in a troubled part of the world where hope has been in short supply and conflict and the threat of environmental calamity have been in abundance.