World·In Depth

A 'time bomb' in the Red Sea could cause a catastrophic oil spill without global help: UN

A tanker off the coast of Yemen threatens to spill more than four times the oil of the Exxon Valdez — and cause major disruption to global shipping — if an emergency salvage mission fails. Right now, Global Affairs Canada says it has no plans to help fund the operation.

To remove the oil from the decaying Yemeni oil tanker will cost $144M US, but Canada won't contribute

Red Sea oil tanker could cause catastrophic spill without global intervention

1 year ago
Duration 2:18
The world’s largest oil spill is thought to be imminent off the coast of Yemen. But there’s no guarantee the world will fund a plan to rescue an aging, abandoned tanker.

For three years, Mohammed Al-Hakimi has issued warnings of a looming catastrophe off his country's western coast: a decaying tanker that threatens to spill more than a million barrels of crude oil into the Red Sea.

The ship, known as the FSO Safer, has the potential to become one of the worst environmental disasters of all time, as it carries more than four times the oil that was on board the Exxon Valdez when it ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in 1989.

International authorities warn the ship could disintegrate or explode at any time — a disaster that would have far-reaching effects for the countries and marine life along the Red Sea, and to global supply chains that rely on crossing those waters.

"It's going to be a world catastrophe in a way," Al-Hakimi, the founder of Yemeni environmental group Holm Akhdar, said in an interview from the country's largest city, Sana'a.

The United Nations has so far raised just half of the $80 million US it needs to begin an emergency operation to remove the oil from a ship it describes as a "time bomb."

This graphic shows the position of the FSO Safer on Yemen's west coast. Experts warn an oil spill could cause major disruption to international shipping through the Red Sea. (CBC News)

It says the four-month operation must start within weeks, because strong winds and currents expected in the Red Sea from September onwards will increase the risk of the decrepit tanker disintegrating.

On Wednesday, after a fundraising conference in the Netherlands, the UN said it had commitments for $40 million US from the Netherlands, Germany, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Qatar, Sweden, Norway, Finland, France, Switzerland and Luxembourg, and would now turn to the private sector to try and raise further funds.

"When we have the funding, the work can begin," David Gressly, the United Nations humanitarian co-ordinator for Yemen, said in a statement.

Canada, meanwhile, has no plans to contribute to the salvage mission, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada told CBC News ahead of Wednesday's pledging event.

"Canada is not in a position to provide funding to support the salvage of the FSO Safer at this time."

Corroded pipework is seen on the FSO Safer in this undated photo. The United Nations, Greenpeace and others warn the decrepit oil tanker is at risk of exploding or causing a catastrophic oil spill. (Holm Akhdar)

In total, the Safer salvage operation will cost about $144 million US — an estimate that also includes finding a permanent storage solution for the oil. The UN says that figure is a fraction of the estimated $20 billion US it would cost to clean up an oil spill from the tanker.

A disaster waiting to happen

Since 1988, the Safer — a floating oil storage and offloading vessel owned by Yemen's state oil company — has been used to store, transfer and export crude from the country's oil fields. 

But after war broke out in 2015 between Yemen's internationally recognized government and Houthi rebels, the waters north of Hodeida became contested, and the Safer fell into disrepair. 

"This vessel could break up tomorrow. Every day that we wait is a gamble," Gressly told CBC News in an interview ahead of Wednesday's fundraising event.

"An explosion risk has become very real now, and it's actually just a matter of time. It will fall apart — the only question is when."

The Embassy of the Republic of Yemen in Ottawa told CBC News it has been warning international organizations and other countries about the risks from the Safer for "a very long time".

"It is important that the world recognizes the gravity of this situation and must act together immediately … before it touches us all. It is critical that we act with the advantage of foresight rather than react in the chaos of hindsight," the embassy said in a statement.

The United Nations says it needs $80 million for the first stage of a mission to remove oil from the FSO Safer, seen here off the coast of Yemen in an undated image. (Holm Akhdar)

On Tuesday, the Houthis, who control Yemen's western Red Sea ports, criticized the UN for "not presenting an operational plan" to maintain the Safer — more than two months after agreeing to the transfer of its oil to another vessel, The Associated Press reported. The UN did not immediately respond to the Houthi statement but has previously accused the rebels of delaying the ship's maintenance plans.

How the salvage operation will work

Gressly confirmed that the operation's first few months will be spent preparing the precarious vessel for offloading the oil safely, a process the UN hopes will begin within weeks.

"It's a lot of work required, because it's in such bad condition and very dangerous."

This undated photo shows corrosion on board the FSO Safer. A marine salvage expert says if there is rust and hydrogen in the ship's oil tanks, there could be an explosion upon contact with fresh air. (Holm Akhdar)

First, the salvage crew will board and inspect the Safer to check the state of its pumps, valves and other systems, the UN said in a video released online on Wednesday.

It said it expects the ship's oil tanks will be unsafe, "due to accumulated cargo vapours."

A maritime salvage expert who is not involved in the operation, explained to CBC News that the ship could be at risk of exploding if a mix of hydrogen and rust in its tanks comes into contact with fresh air when the tank lids are opened.

"It can lead to an explosion very, very rapidly, which means the entire operation can be jeopardized within a matter of minutes," said Nadeem Anwar, a marine salvage expert and senior lecturer at the Warsash Maritime School at Solent University in Southampton, England.

WATCH | The UN's plan to safely remove the oil from the FSO Safer

The video released by the UN indicated that salvors would use portable equipment to pump inert gases into the oil chambers in order to keep their contents stable. 

"Without inert gases, the operation gets that much more risky," Anwar explained.

Once the tanks were deemed safe, their lids would be opened and hydraulic pumps would be lowered in to transfer the oil to a temporary vessel moored alongside the Safer.

The empty tanks would then be cleaned to remove any remaining oil before the Safer is towed away and sold for scrap.

Systems on board the FSO Safer have not been maintained since 2015, when Yemen's civil war began. This undated image shows some of the corrosion on board the vessel. (Holm Akhdar)

The oil will remain on the temporary vessel until the UN finds a more permanent storage facility, where the oil will be held "until the conflict [between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels] is basically over, and a peace settlement is in place where we can actually sell the oil and get rid of the problem once and for all," Gressly said.

While groups on the ground in Yemen are relieved that a salvage plan could soon be put in motion, they are worried that more has not been done to prepare people living on the coast for the potential of a spill or explosion before, or during, the operation.

Yemeni fishermen return with their catch on the Red Sea coast in the Khokha district of Hodeida on May 7. Environmental groups say locals on the coast are unprepared to respond to an oil spill or explosion from the FSO Safer. (Khaled Ziad/AFP/Getty Images)

Al-Hakimi said his organization has been trying to raise awareness among farmers and fishers on how to respond if they see oil in the water — including by sharing information in local radio broadcasts — but he wants the UN to set up a hotline locals can call if the FSO Safer starts leaking.

'A global catastrophe'

The environmental consequences of a spill would stretch far beyond Yemen's borders, devastating coral reefs, a turtle nesting site and other marine life in the Red Sea, a Greenpeace spokesperson said.

"It's a unique area with unique marine life and … biodiversity, including marine mammals, dugongs, mangroves, whales and dolphins, too," said Paul Horsman, who is leading the Greenpeace team responding to the FSO Safer.

This graphic illustrates the potential risk of oil contamination if a spill occurs from the FSO Safer, based on an analysis carried out for the U.K. government by Riskaware. (CBC News)

Yemen's already dire humanitarian situation would also be made significantly worse by an environmental disaster, according to modelling carried out by ACAPS, a non-profit organization that provides independent humanitarian analysis to UN agencies, governments and other groups.

More than 20 million Yemenis — about 70 percent of the country's population — rely on billions of dollars in international aid, most of which flows into the country via the western port of Hodeida. If an oil spill occurs, that critical gateway would likely close for two to three months.

A spill would also disrupt drinking water for up to 10 million people, limit fuel supplies for electricity, transportation and health care, as well as cause hundreds of thousands of farmers, fishermen and others to lose their livelihoods, the ACAPS modelling found.

Likewise, an explosion or fire would cause major air pollution over an even greater area of western Yemen, posing a "significant health risk" to vulnerable people in a country where most residents have no access to basic medical services.

An oil spill from the FSO Safer could close the Hodeida port, the main gateway for humanitarian aid into Yemen, for months. Here, workers unload sacks of wheat flour as people gather at an aid distribution centre in the port in 2018. (Abduljabbar Zeyad/Reuters)

"[Either scenario] could only exacerbate the situation of the Yemeni people further, and it's something that can definitely be avoided, given enough response to this potential environmental disaster," said Steve Penson, a data scientist at ACAPS.

"We know the economic impacts, the social impacts, health impacts — it's been warned about, and I think there's a potential here to really help avoid something like this from occurring."

Potential disruption to the Suez Canal

The economic impacts would also stretch well beyond Yemen and its neighbours: the UN warns an oil spill could disrupt billions of dollars in global shipping through a key passageway to the Suez Canal.

"Think of the Ever Given," Gressly told journalists in New York earlier this month, referring to the massive container ship that ran aground in the Suez Canal last March, blocking hundreds of ships from passing through.

That's just one of the reasons why Al-Hakimi, the local environmental activist, said the world should care about preventing the Safer from causing its own disaster.

"There's two choices: either a global movement and a global support for this, or … we wait for catastrophe and we wait for the oil spill," he said. "And then, we can't fix what's broken."


  • Due to a translation error, a previous version of this story said Holm Akhdar had set up a hotline people could call if they saw oil in the water. Holm Akhdar has since clarified that it did not have a hotline, and wanted the UN to set one up.
    May 12, 2022 6:01 PM ET

With files from The Associated Press