Millions will go without drinking water if decaying oil tanker explodes

Tens of millions of people could lose access to clean drinking water if a decaying oil tanker moored off the coast of Yemen is left to collapse or explode, experts have said.

The Yemeni state-owned vessel Safer, which holds over one million barrels of crude oil, is stationed permanently around five nautical miles off the rebel-held port of Ras Isa.

Since the late 1980s, it has served as an offshore oil storage platform, and is directly connected to a nearby pipeline in the central Yemeni province of Marib. But since war erupted in Yemen in 2014, few maintenance crews have been given access to the 43-year-old ship. Last week, the United Nations said the Houthis had once again barred experts from assessing the vessel.

Experts now fear that the buildup of volatile gasses released by the oil could cause a huge explosion, or the corrosion to the vessel could see it completely disintegrate – both leading to one of the world’s largest oil spills.

Yemen’s recognised authorities told The Independent they had submitted multiple urgent appeals to the UN to pile pressure on the Iran-backed rebels.

In a new evaluation of the impact of such a disaster, experts at IR Consilium – a consultancy focusing on maritime law and security – warned that any such incident would force multiple desalination plants across the surrounding Red Sea area to shut, depriving millions of access to drinking water.

The oil spill would destroy marine ecosystems and potentially strangle traffic on one of the world’s busiest waterways – the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.

It could also shutter Hodeidah port, the gateway for 90 per cent of Yemen’s food, medical and aid supplies.

“Such an incident could have a far-reaching and highly destructive range of effects: desalinisation plants contaminated, depriving tens of millions of people, some already on the brink of famine, of access to clean drinking water; the loss of marine ecosystems… millions of desperate Yemenis literally starved for international aid because port facilities are unusable,” the group said in a report published by the Atlantic Council think tank this week.

That could see a tangible impact on the world economy as well as “armed conflict over basic necessities; and a downward spiral in an already fragile region”, the report added. The Atlantic Council lists the UAE embassy in the US and the British Foreign Office among its major donors.

Mohammed al-Hadhrami, vice minister of foreign affairs for the recognised Yemen government, said the authorities were making urgent appeals to the UN and other international bodies.

“If something happens to the tanker it would be a problem for the whole region – even the world,” ambassador al-Hadhrami told The Independent,calling it “an ethical obligation for the UN” to act.

“We don’t want to see it get that far. No one knows the full potential of the spill, if it happens it would set a precedent in the region. This goes well beyond Yemen,” he added.

The Houthis could not be immediately reached for comment.

Before the conflict, the tanker had acted as a storage facility for the main Marib-Ras Isa pipeline in Yemen, which has no onshore facilities in the area.

The ship now lies along a part of coast controlled by the Iran-backed Houthis, who want guarantees that they will have access to the revenues of the oil, thought to be worth $80m (£65m).

The cash-strapped rebels swept control of the country in late 2014, forcing the recognised Yemeni president Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi to flee.

Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies launched a bombing campaign in the spring of 2015 to reinstate their ally Mr Hadi. Four years on there is little hope of an end to the fighting.

The tanker is so contentious that it was named in a peace agreement signed by both the Houthis and the Saudi-backed recognised government in Stockholm last year, involving withdrawals from key Red Sea ports.

But so far peace talks have stalled and the last time a maintenance crew was given access to the tanker was two years ago.

IR Consilium said that earlier this year the vessel was so corroded that a piece of it fell off – fortunately missing the submarine pipeline that feeds it.

The pipeline may contain another one million barrels of oil, which could also be dumped into the Red Sea if the vessel collapses, doubling the size of the oil spill. At least in terms of numbers of barrels, it is akin to when Saddam Hussein dumped millions of barrels in the Persian Gulf in 1991.

“There is no more critical infrastructure than these [desalination] facilities. After all, safe drinking water is second only to oxygen as a necessity for human life,” Dr David Soud, head of research at IR Consilium and a co-author of the Atlantic Council report told The Independent.

“There are quite a few [plants] and having one or more shut down due to contamination from an oil spill could have dire consequences for the region’s people, millions of whom are already on the brink,” he added.

He compared the devastation to a recent diesel spill off the coast of Patagonia which made international headlines despite only involving 250 barrels of fuel.

“If the Safer were to leak all its oil, the spill would be over four and a half thousand times larger – and that’s the Safer alone, not the submarine pipeline that connects with it,” he said.

Dr Ian Ralby who also worked on the report said that despite the alarming potential consequences of the spill, the crisis “has not inspired sufficient action”.

He warned of the violence that would likely ensue from lack of access to drinking water, as well as the effect of the spill “global marine biodiversity, the loss of livelihoods and food sources from the degraded marine environment, and the threat to coastal tourism”.


By Bel Trew