ATbar The "Safer" tanker - an environmental "time bomb" in the Red Sea

The "Safer" tanker - an environmental "time bomb" in the Red Sea

19/07/2020 | by Shay, Shaul (Dr.)  

Yemeni foreign minister Mohammed al-Hadhrami called on July 4, 2020, the UN Security Council to hold a special session on the Safer floating oil tank following the Iran-backed Houthi militia’s refusal to allow UN experts to conduct their five-year maintenance on the ship. The minister called on the council to address the situation immediately and separate the issue from Yemen’s ongoing war. [1]

The Iran backed Houthi militia in Yemen has threatened on July 6, 2020, to blow up the Safer, full of oil, causing major environmental damage to the Red Sea, if the port city of Hodeidah falls to the UN-recognized Hadi government and the Saudi coalition. [2]

The Safer oil tanker which is currently carrying an estimated 1,400,000 barrels of crude oil needs critical maintenance to mend cracks that have been allowing water to leak into the control room.[3]
The seawater has entered the engine compartment of the tanker, causing damage to the pipelines and increasing the risk of sinking. Rust has covered parts of the tanker and the inert gas that prevents the tanks from gathering inflammable gases has leaked out. Experts say repairs are no longer possible because the damage to the ship is irreversible.[4]

In March 2020, the UN ambassadors from Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, and Yemen, called the UN Security Council to exercise "maximum efforts" to persuade Yemen´s Houthi militias to allow the United Nations to inspect the tanker.

Yemen’s UN-recognized government has said the Houthi rebels would be to blame for any leaks from the ship because it’s moored in a Houthi-held area but the Houthis have refused to accept any responsibility.  Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi, a member of the Houthi ruling political council said on July 2, 2020, they’ve sent a maintenance team to repair the aging oil tanker, however, because the Saudi Arabian-led coalition has blocked access to necessary equipment, the team may fail to prevent the Safer from leaking oil.[5]

The Safer often described by officials as a" ticking time bomb." An explosion or leak from the Safer would cause an environmental disaster with dire economic and humanitarian consequences, threatening millions of residents in the Hodeidah governorate and the Red Sea riparian countries.

Environmental \ ecological terrorism

Environmental terrorism also called ecological terrorism is the destruction, or the threat of destruction, of the environment by states, groups, or individuals in order to intimidate or to coerce governments or civilians.[6]

Environmental destruction or the threat thereof can be labeled 'terrorism' when: [7]

  • The act or threat breaches national and/or international laws governing the disruption of the environment during peacetime or wartime.
  • The act or threat exhibits the fundamental characteristics of terrorism.
  • An act of environmental destruction can be termed 'environmental terrorism' only when the two latter criteria are met, and when the environment is used by the perpetrator as an authentic symbol that instills fear in the larger population over the ecological consequences of the act.

The case study of the Gulf war (1990 – 1991)

On August 2, 1990, Iraqi forces overtook Kuwait in a "Blitzkrieg" attack.  As early as September 1990, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had threatened to destroy Kuwaiti oil wells or "flush" Kuwaiti oil into the sea if the allies attempted to drive him out of Kuwait.[8]

In response to the invasion, the United States formed an international coalition which ultimately drove Iraq out of Kuwait. On January 16, 1991 the coalition forces launched an assault against Iraqi military occupying Kuwait.[9] In an attempt to prevent U.S. forces from landing on the beaches of Kuwait, Iraqi forces dug long trenches down the coastline and filled them with oil and intentionally dumped oil into the Persian Gulf. [10]              In late March 1991, while the Iraqi forces were retreating from Kuwait, they set ablaze hundreds of oil wells.[11]

The Gulf War has left a trail of environmental damage. The entire act of environmental terrorism released a total of 11 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf, resulting in the largest oil spill in history.  Years after Kuwait's liberation, hundreds of kilometers of coastline were still covered with oil. The animal, fishery and plant life and the ecosystems within the Gulf suffered greatly from the “greatest oil spill in history.”[12]

Smoke from the fires has blackened skies as far north as Turkey and as far south as Qatar. The fires fueled a smoke cloud to produce greasy black rain in parts of the region, threating to poison drinking water and harm crops.

The threat of Houthi Environmental terrorism

The Iran backed Houthi militia in Yemen has threatened on July 6, 2020, to blow up the decaying floating storage tanker full of oil, causing major environmental damage to the Red Sea, if the eastern port city of Hodeidah falls to the UN-recognized Hadi government and the Arab Coalition. [13]

For years, the UN has been trying to send inspectors to assess the damage aboard the vessel and looking for ways to secure the tanker by unloading the oil and pulling the ship to safety. On July 18, 2019, Mark Lowcock, the UN’s undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, told the UN Security Council that its assessment team had been denied the necessary permits by Houthi rebels who control the area.[14]

The tanker Safer, is a Japanese-made vessel built in the 1970s and sold to the Yemeni government in 1980s. The Safer has been floating near the port city of Hodeidah since 1989 and has been operated like a mini-terminal to store and offload oil from Yemen´s inland oil fields. The Safer has not been used since March 2015, when the region fell under control of the Houthis, and there are serious concerns its structure has deteriorated significantly. [15]

The Safer tanker could face two potential hazardous scenarios an explosion or leak:[16]

 A leak of oil could lead to one of the worst environmental disasters the world has seen. The ship would flood the Red sea with oil and have a devastating impact on the Red Sea coral reef, Yemeni islands and the livelihood of Yemeni fishermen.[17]

Driven by waves and wind, large oil spills can spread for hundreds of kilometers. An oil spill could destroy some 850,000 tons of fish in the Red Sea, the Bab El Mandab waterway, and the Gulf of Aden and affect 1.7 million people working in the fishing industry and their families in six Red sea countries.[18]

Explosion or fire – the tanker Safer is floating north of Yemen´s port of Hodeidah. Some 3 million people in Hodeidah would be affected by toxic gases, four percent of productive agricultural lands in Yemen would be covered with dark clouds, destroying beans, fruits and vegetables.

The port of Hodeidah handles about 70% of the country´s commercial and humanitarian imports. Humanitarian organizations would suspend their services in Hodeidah, cutting off services for 7 million people in need.

Fuel prices would increase dramatically and double the price of goods and food and   1.7 million people would need food aid as the closure of the port can create shortages.[19]

The aftermath of a fire or explosion would prevent the recovery of nearshore species in nearly 25 years.

 

Summary

After the end of the Gulf War (1991), the region suffered from damage caused by oil pollution in the waters off the Arabian Gulf. Marine life required many years to recover.  In addition, it suffered from damage caused by oil fires to the health of many people in the region, after they were exposed to toxic fumes.[20]

An explosion or leak from the Safer would cause an environmental disaster with dire economic and humanitarian consequences, threatening millions of residents in the Hodeidah governorate and the Red Sea riparian countries.

The tanker Safer is used as a "bargaining cheap " by the Houthis and they have kept the international community and the UN at bay. The spilt oil could be set ablaze to cause a devastating fire in the Red Sea, as revenge against the Saudi coalition.
The international community and the UN must take a firm, decisive and strong stance against the Houthis before the oil tanker causes an environmental and human disaster.



[1] Yemen urges UN Security Council to hold session on floating Safer oil tanker, Al Arabiya, July 4, 2020.

[2] Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis threaten to blow up abandoned oil tanker: Analyst, Al Arabiya, July 6, 2020.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Maggie Michael, UN: Tanker held hostage off Yemen, with 1 million barrels of crude, may explode, the times of Israel, June 28, 2020.

[5] Mohammed Hatem, Yemen Rebels Send Repair Team to Stricken Tanker Risking Leak, Bloomberg green, July 2, 2020.

[7] Schwartz, Daniel (1998) Environmental Terrorism: Analyzing the Concept, Journal of Peace Research 35(4): 483–496.

 

[8] EcO -Terrorist acts during the Persian Gulf war: is international law sufficient to hold Iraq liable? https://digitalcommons.law.uga.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1509&context=gjicl

[9] Joyner and J. T. Kirkhope, "The Persian Gulf War Oil Spill: Reassessing the Law of Environmental Protection and the Law of Armed Conflict," Case W. Res. J. Intl. Law 24, No. 1, 29 1992.

 

[10] T. M. Hawley, against the fires of hell: the environmental disaster of the Gulf War (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992).

 

[11] EcO -Terrorist acts during the Persian Gulf war: is international law sufficient to hold Iraq liable? https://digitalcommons.law.uga.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1509&context=gjicl

[12] Tutton, Mark. “Lessons Learned from the Largest Oil Spill in History.” CNN: Inside the Middle East. June 2010. http://www.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/meast/06/04/kuwait.oil.spill/.

 

[13] Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis threaten to blow up abandoned oil tanker: Analyst.

[14] Risk of environmental disaster as Safer tanker decays in Yemen, Arab news, March 30, 2020.

[15] Yemen urges UN Security Council to hold session on floating Safer oil tanker.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis threaten to blow up abandoned oil tanker: Analyst.

[18] Mohammed Hatem, Yemen Rebels Send Repair Team to Stricken Tanker Risking Leak.

[19] Yemen urges UN Security Council to hold session on floating Safer oil tanker.

 

[20] Ibid.

 

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