A massive explosion rocked Beirut city on 4 August 2020 flattening much of the city’s port, damaging buildings across the capital and sending a giant mushroom cloud into the sky. More than 171 people were killed, many are missing and around 6,000 injured.
According to Lebanese officials, up till now, the known reason for the blast is the explosion of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had been stored unsafely at a warehouse in the port.
This catastrophe should raise a red flag and focus attention on the risks related to similar risky cases across the region such as SAFER Tanker.
SAFER is a solvable problem and does not need to be added to their many other burdens. Maybe this potential catastrophe urge all Yemenis, Arab League and UN for the utmost goal which is the necessity to sit together and work hard to stop the war in Yemen
This 45-year-old Safer Floating Tank, which is a neglected floating oil storage vessel loaded with about 1.1 million barrels of crude oil is anchored about 60km north of the rebel-held port of Al-Hudaydah in Yemen.
Neither the region nor the world can bear the devastating impacts of this environmental bomb off Yemen’s coast. Many environmental experts have warned of an environmental, economic and humanitarian disaster for Yemen and its neighbours if the vessel breaks apart or explode.
Since the tanker has had almost no maintenance since the start of Yemen’s devastating civil war five years ago. Moreover, in late May 2020, the seawater flooded the tanker’s engine room, increasing the risk that the vessel would sink or explode. Luckily, a temporary fix was found.
The Red Sea is among the world’s most important repositories of biodiversity, supporting many important species including marine mammals, sea turtles and seabirds. In addition, the environmental conditions of the Red Sea are ideal for the flourishing of coral reefs.
However, the Red Sea is almost a closed sea so, its ecology would need over 30 years to recover from the consequences of this potential oil spillage from safer tanker.
The Yemeni environmental group “Green Dream” estimates the main environmental negative impacts as follows: more 115 Yemeni islands in the Red Sea will lose their biodiversity, and their natural habitats. Also, 969 fish species in Yemeni waters that will be killed by spilt crude oil and 300 species of coral reefs will disappear from the Yemeni waters.
In addition, 768 species of algae in Yemeni territorial waters will be damaged and killed and 1.5 million migratory birds are threatened during their annual crossing of the Bab AlMandab area, which is classified as the second global passage for migratory soaring birds.
The UK-based Riskaware calculated the environmental costs from oil spillage from this tanker at a cost of $20 billion and could take two-and-a-half years to clean up.
Even more serious would be a fire or explosion on board the vessel, which could lead to 40% of Yemen’s agricultural land being covered in soot, leaving more than 3 million farmers unable to work for a year.
In case of the closure of the nearby key port of Al-Hudaydah, should an oil spill occur or tanker explosion, is five to six months and that would trigger a 200 per cent increase in fuel prices, while food prices would likely double.
The question is whether the world will act in time to alleviate such deeply-held concerns. The author believes that, the best, fastest and safest solution is to offload the oil from the ship and then tow it to a safe location for dismantling.
For now, an urgent action needs to be taken by different parties in Yemen, UN and Arab League in order to come up with a clear and detailed response plan should an oil spill occur, emphasising that the Safer could release four times more oil than the notorious Exxon Valdez disaster did, off Alaska in 1989.
Especially that, neither war-torn Yemen nor its neighbours have the capacity to manage and mitigate the consequences of such a huge spill.
Preventing this calamity should not be politicised. It is about people’s lives and our nature especially that the Yemeni people are already facing many severe challenges and difficult conditions: a war, diseases, hunger, a collapsed economy and uncertain futures.
SAFER is a solvable problem and does not need to be added to their many other burdens. Maybe this potential catastrophe urge all Yemenis, Arab League and UN for the utmost goal which is the necessity to sit together and work hard to stop the war in Yemen.
Dr Mohamed Abdel Raouf is an independent environment researcher.