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Disaster averted: defusing the ‘time bomb’ tanker

Disaster averted: defusing the ‘time bomb’ tanker


When Yemen’s civil war broke out in 2014 a tanker that held the crude oil from its oil fields was abandoned in the Red Sea. Now the UN has had to step in to stop one of the largest spills in history.

An environmental disaster has narrowly been averted in the Red Sea. For the past few months salvage experts have been involved in a race against time to stop a stricken tanker with more than a million barrels of oil on board disintegrating. The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, described the FSO Safer as “a ticking time bomb” which could result in the “worst oil spill of our era”.  

For more than thirty years the Safer has floated off the coast of Yemen, becoming an essential part of the country’s oil industry. 

When Yemen descended into civil war in 2014, the tanker was abandoned and left to rust.

In 2020 leaks in the engine room threatened to sink the ship and cause what would have been one of the largest oil spills in history, which could have spread as far afield as Saudi Arabia and Eritrea. But neither side in Yemen’s war, Houthi rebels and the Saudi-backed government, could agree on what to do with the oil on board the Safer. 

So in an unusual move, the UN turned to crowdfunding in order to pay for the transfer of the oil to another vessel. With support from nearly 20 countries and private donors, including a group of children in the United States, the UN raised $121m.

In the middle of August the last barrel of oil was taken off the Safer.  

But there’s still more work to do. The United Nations Development Program will manage and maintain the new tanker until the end of the year. It will then be handed over to Yemen’s state oil company.

But both the Houthis and the internationally-recognised government claim ownership of the company. 

And there’s no agreement over the ownership of the oil or how it will be sold.  Both sides in the civil war are currently claiming it.