Photo Credit: Screenshot of Deutsche Welle video
The moored FSO Safer

A massive oil spill of one million barrels is anticipated shortly in the Red Sea, off the coast of Yemen, as the FSO Safer floating storage and offloading unit begins to leak.

FSO Safer is a floating oil storage and offloading vessel that is moored in the Red Sea north of the Yemeni city of Al Hudaydah. It was built in 1976 by the Hitachi Zosen Corporation in Japan as the oil tanker Esso Japan. She was moored about 4.3 miles off of the coast of Yemen in 1988 under the ownership of the Yemeni government via the national oil company, which used her to store and export oil from inland oil fields around Ma’rib. In her storage configuration, Safer has a capacity of about three million barrels of oil.


In March 2015, in the early days of the Yemeni Civil War, Safer fell into the hands of Houthi forces when they took control of the coastline surrounding her mooring. In the following years, her structural condition deteriorated significantly, leading to the risk of a catastrophic hull breach or explosion of oil vapors that would typically be suppressed by inert gas generated on board.

On July 15, the United Nations warned that the FSO Safer could spill four times as much oil as the Exxon Valdez oil spill. On September 24, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the UN wrote in a letter that experts had observed that “a pipeline attached to the vessel is suspected to have been separated from the stabilizers holding it to the bottom and is now floating on the surface of the sea.” In late November, the UN and Houthi leadership reached an agreement to allow a UN-led team access to Safer by January 2021 for inspection and repair.

Highly diverse coral reefs of the Red Sea are home to thousands of species, all of which are at immediate risk in case of an oil spill. / Prof. Maoz Fine

A team of international researchers, including Prof. Maoz Fine of Bar-Ilan University, says that if immediate action is taken, there may still be time to prevent the imminent humanitarian and ecological disaster that will result.

In a policy brief published Tuesday in Frontiers in Marine Science (A Closing Window of Opportunity to Save a Unique Marine Ecosystem), a team of international researchers from Israel, the United States, Germany, and Switzerland warns that immense devastation to the health and livelihoods of millions of people living in half a dozen countries along the Red Sea coast will be guaranteed if the Safer’s decay is not addressed immediately.

The potential spill will also affect the entire international community by degrading a critical global resource – the coral reefs of the northern Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba, which are considered to be among the last reef ecosystems in the world to thrive beyond mid-century.

Over the last five years, as the Safer has languished on its mooring, there have been multiple warnings of the risk of its degradation. Yet despite the most advanced warning ever for an oil spill, no concrete steps have been taken to prevent it.

“Immediate international intervention is needed to prevent an imminent humanitarian and ecological disaster,” says Dr. Karine Kleinhaus, of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, a co-author of the policy brief. “Emergency action must be taken by the UN and its International Maritime Organization to remove the oil, despite political tensions in the region,” she adds.

Looking beyond the imminent danger posed by the Safer, the authors write that with 4.8 million barrels of crude oil and refined petroleum products passing through the Red Sea each day, a regional strategy must be drafted for leak prevention and containment that is specific to the Red Sea’s unique ecosystems, unusual water currents, and political landscape. “Coral reefs line almost all 4,000 km of the Red Sea’s coastlines and also surround multiple islands within it so that oil spills in any part of the Sea threaten these valuable ecosystems,” says Prof. Maoz Fine, of Bar-Ilan University’s Goodman Faculty of Life Sciences and the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Science, who co-authored the policy brief. “Action must be taken now. The window of opportunity to save a unique marine ecosystem is quickly closing.”

The policy brief was additionally authored by Prof. Hezi Gildor, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Dr. Yael Amitai, of the Israel Oceanographic & Limnological Research Institute, Prof. Anders Meibom, of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, and Prof. Christian R. Voolstra, of the University of Konstanz in Germany.


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