A reality of being from the Middle East is living with bated breath, waiting for the next big crisis to hit our peoples, the next giant act of senseless cruelty, the next spectacle of destruction. It feels like lying in wait for the next collective trauma for the world to wring its hands over and send endless analysts and correspondents to try and ‘make sense of,’ as the cycle goes on and on. And a hallmark of that cycle is its sense of inevitability, that there was no way we could have seen this coming or prevented it.

But similar to how ongoing investigations into the devastating Beirut explosion show that officials were warned for years of an impending disaster, we currently know of another impending disaster—of no smaller magnitude—in the form of, again, a large ship, filled with dangerous explosive materials, sitting unmaintained for years, with officials heeding no warnings from experts sounding the alarms.

Since the start of the war in Yemen in 2015, an oil tanker called the FSO Safer has been controlled by Houthi rebels, abandoned and unmaintained just 60 kilometres off Yemen’s western coastline. The 45 year old oil-tanker, which holds an estimated 1.148 million barrels of crude oil, is already leaking. Every passing day without maintenance increases the looming risk of the ship’s sinking, explosion, and/or spill.

Earlier this month, Yemen’s information minister, Moammar al-Eryani, warned of a “human, economic and environmental catastrophe” if the Safer sinks or explodes. “The huge explosion at the Port of Beirut and its aftermath of heavy human casualties and catastrophic damage to the Lebanese economy and environment remind us of the ticking bomb Safer,” Eryani told Yemeni news agency Saba.

Satellite image of the tanker, Maxar Technologies, AP Photos.

To put it into perspective, the oil spill, which would be four times worse than the Exxon-Valdez spill of 1989, would affect an area of 45,000 square kilometres, an area half the size of Jordan, and bigger than both Lebanon and the entirety of historical Palestine put together. 

The spill would also devastate the Red Sea’s ecosystem, killing hundreds of species of marine mammals, sea turtles, and sea birds, destroying pristine coral reefs, and decimating the economies that rely on the sea’s rich biodiversity to survive, including population centres such as Jeddah in Saudi Arabia and tourist hotspots along Egypt’s eastern shore.

Though international and regional media have picked up the story, awareness of this issue remains woefully low, for several possible reasons. For one, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen has been ongoing for five years, and though it rises and falls in the social zeitgeist, popular discourse rarely makes room for much beyond outrage over mass malnutrition, which—though important—isn’t the totality of the conflict.

By Yemeni environmental organisation Holm Akhdar.

Little to no new information is available on the looming catastrophe of the FSO Safer, despite the repeated warnings of United Nations experts and environmental activists, and demands for immediate action. In addition to the catastrophe in Beirut, the recent oil spill off the coast of Mauritius is a dire reminder of the need to deal with these types of environmental crises preemptively, potentially sparing countless lives, untold environmental damage, and a cleanup most countries in the region can’t afford.

According to Yemeni Environmental organisation Holm Akhdar (Green Dream), in Yemen alone, over 115 island ecosystems would be irreparably damaged, over 126,000 fishermen would lose their jobs, 969 species of fish would be critically endangered by the pollution, and 300 species of coral reefs would die. 

Should the situation get out of control, it will directly affect millions of people in a country that is already enduring the world’s largest humanitarian emergency,” said Inger Andersen, the executive director of the U.N. Environment Program. “It will destroy entire ecosystems for decades and go beyond borders.” 

Attempted talks between United Nations representatives and the Houthis have broken down since 2018, with the Iran-backed Houthis currently claiming the right to sell the 1.148 million barrels at an estimated market value of 40 million dollars (though the current value after the coronavirus crude oil slump is much less) in an attempt to leverage the crisis against the Saudi-Arabia supported Yemeni government in the ongoing war.

Currently, advocates are demanding the UN Security Council, the Yemeni government, and the Houthi rebels who control the ship find a way for independent maintenance and inspection to prevent the catastrophic tragedy from destroying the Red Sea.