UN gets green light to inspect the decaying supertanker FSO Safer in Yemen

The United Nations has received official approval from the Houthi authorities in Yemen to carry out the planned expert mission to the decaying FSO Safer oil tanker, which poses a danger of massive oil spill to the region.

The Safer oil tanker is moored north of Hodeidah and is believed to be loaded with over 1 million barrels of crude oil. The ageing tanker has had almost no maintenance since 2015.

“We have now received an official letter from the de facto Ansar Allah authorities on Saturday indicating their approval for the UN proposal for the planned expert mission to the tanker,” Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary‑General, said in a media briefing on Tuesday.

“This, as you know, has followed several weeks of constructive technical exchanges on the activities that will be undertaken by the expert team; it represents an important step forward in this critical work.”

Now that the UN proposal for the expert mission has been agreed upon, the mission will move forward with the procurement of necessary equipment, entry permits for mission staff, agreement of a work-order system onboard, and logistical planning. 

“The de facto authorities have assured us that they will provide all the necessary facilitation to ensure that the expert team can deploy as quickly as possible,” the spokesman explained.

The objective of the UN-led expert mission is to assess the vessel and undertake initial light maintenance, as well as to formulate recommendations on what further action is required to neutralize the risk of an oil spill.

Special UN envoys have been calling for a mission to the dilapidated tanker amid fears that the tanker might rapture causing an explosion and a massive oil spill into the Gulf of Aden jeopardizing the livelihoods of the local population.

While the west coast of Yemen would be hit the hardest, the impact would likely extend to Djibouti, Eritrea, and Saudi Arabia, according to the estimates from the UN.

The vessel, officially owned by the Government of Yemen, was once used as a floating storage and offloading terminal (FSO) for vessels loading crude oil from a nearby Marib-Ras Isa pipeline.

It has been moored 7km off the Ras Isa port since 1988 and fell under Houthi control in 2015 after the Houthi forces captured the port. Since then, it has been used as a bargaining chip between Houthis and the Yemeni-government, backed by the Saudi-led coalition.

As reported by the UN, the one-time supertanker, built in Japan in 1974, sprung a leak in late May, flooding its engine room with seawater and threatening to destabilize the vessel and spill its cargo. Another spill was reported back in September, making the mission to the vessel ever more urgent.

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Similar negotiations between the UN and the Houthis have taken place over the past few years, however, efforts to access the vessel by independent experts fell through.

When asked by the media, whether this could be the case again, Dujarric said:

“We’ve had, in the past, a kind of an intention of saying yes, but there have been different steps. These were technical talks about how this is going to work. It had been a broad permission… broad statement of saying, yes, you can come and do what you need to do on the tanker, but we need to figure out the technical modalities; right? And, so, this is a further step in the right direction.”

The UN now needs to work out the exact deployment timeline, which will depend on the market availability of the required equipment, the required staff, the shipping times, etc.

 “Now, our colleagues at UNOPS [United Nations Office for Project Services] have under their belt the market analysis already, so they know where to get the material. They know where to get the people, but these timelines need to be worked out,” he added.

As explained, the mission staff and the equipment are expected to arrive on site by late January or early February.