16 Jul 2020 Speech Disasters & conflicts

Briefing to the Security Council on the situation in Yemen

Photo by UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

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Thank you, Mr. President.

The Red Sea environment and its people are currently seriously exposed to the risk of a massive oil leakage from the FSO SAFER, a Floating Storage and Offloading Unit which is anchored 4.8 nautical miles off Ras Isa, Yemen.[1]  

The FSO SAFER contains an estimated 1,148,000 barrels of Marib light crude oil. 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. It will destroy entire ecosystems for decades and go beyond borders. However, in this bleak picture, there is one bright spot. This disaster is entirely preventable, if we act fast. The UN possesses the capacity to intervene and resolve the problem.


The FSO SAFER has not been maintained since 2015.  Its condition is deteriorating daily, increasing the potential for an oil spill.  If this happens, it will cause an environmental catastrophe, impacting ecosystems and impacting the lives of potentially 28 million people who rely on these ecosystems for their livelihoods[2]. As a consequence, it is not unlikely that it would also contribute to a deterioration of security in the region as the resources upon which the populations rely would become polluted, scarce and contested.

The following two scenarios are considered increasingly likely:

  1. Corrosion and lack of maintenance of the FSO unit for an extended period of time can lead to leakage of some of the oil into the sea.
  2. An explosion and a fire on board the FSO unit, caused by accidental ignition of gas accumulated in the cargo tanks, results in the catastrophic scenario with massive leakage of most or all of the oil into the sea.

Threat to biodiversity

An oil spill or explosion in the Red Sea could have a serious, long-lasting environmental impact. The Red Sea is one of the most important repositories of biodiversity on the planet. Its waters support internationally important species, including marine mammals, sea turtles, and seabirds. The coastal marine environments of the region consist of arid coastal zone, coastal wetlands, mangroves, seagrass and coral reefs, which constitute the basis of much of the region’s unique biodiversity, its fisheries production, and its conservation and recreational value.[3] It is estimated that a total of 28 million people rely on the natural resources of the Red Sea and the coastal zone for their livelihoods. Beyond the impact on nature, therefore, an oil spill or an explosion would have massive impact on the livelihoods and the health of the people relying on the natural resources, including fisheries, of the area.

Threat to livelihoods

Independent experts were recently commissioned to model worst case scenarios[4] regarding an oil spill and explosion from the FSO SAFER.  Among the possible scenarios, the study found that an oil spill at any time of the year would pose an immense threat to livelihoods.  But the worst situation would occur if the oil spill happened during the period of July to September in view of prevailing currents and winds. The key findings of the modelling project impacts along the following lines:

  • 100 per cent of fisheries in the Red Sea Coast of Yemen would be affected in the early days and the impact cost could rise to $1.5 billion over the course of 25 years.
  • The closure of the Al Hodeidah port for 5-6 months could result in a 200 per cent increase in fuel prices in Yemen for several months.
  • Food prices would likely double and traders currently based in the Al Hodeidah port would need to partially shift their operations to Aden port, which would struggle to accommodate the additional volume.
  • Further models completed in 2020 on atmospheric dispersion modelling of the entire cargo being consumed by fire during July to September period projects that more than 8.4 million people would be exposed to harmful levels of air pollutants.[5]
  • This model further projects that 500 km2 of agricultural land along the shore in Yemen would be affected resulting in $70 million loss in production, 3.25 million farmers hit by crop loss, and over 8,000 water wells placed at risk of contamination.[6]

The health impacts of hydrocarbons on humans has been well studied and range from irritation of skins to cancer. In the case of an oil spill situation, some compounds of the hydrocarbons could bioaccumulate in living organisms, such as shell fish, and may become more concentrated along the food chain. Humans may become exposed to concentration of these contaminants in the food that could be orders of magnitude higher than in the contaminated environment. This is particularly problematic since people who live far away from the spill location could be impacted by consuming food coming from the oil spill affected area.

The Government of Yemen has published an assessment on the environmental risks posed by the FSO SAFER. The modelling of a potential oil spill has also been undertaken by the Mutual Aid Center of the Regional Organisation for the Conservation of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden (PERSGA).

Although it is the West coast of Yemen that would be by far the worst affected, the impact of any oil spill would also quickly extend to affect neighboring Red Sea countries including Djibouti, Eritrea and Saudi Arabia.  An oil spill in the Red Sea, however, will also affect the demand for fish from the entire Red Sea. It would also impact the movement of the more than 20,000 ships which pass through the Red Sea every year, potentially crippling one of the busiest commercial routes in the world.

Mr. President,

An operational response to any oil spill would need to include:

  1. Containment and recovery of the oil at sea.
  2. A subsequent shoreline clean-up and disposal of the resulting contaminated material.  

Even if the response activities were to be initiated immediately after the oil spill event, it would nonetheless take years for the ecosystems and the economies to recover.[7]

The conflict in Yemen would also impede efforts to address an environmental emergency in a timely and effective manner.  

Without assistance, neither the Government of Yemen nor the neighboring countries currently have the capacity to manage and mitigate the consequences of a massive oil spill and resulting environmental catastrophe. International actors, including from the private sector, who would typically respond to such incidents, would be reluctant to deploy their personnel and resources to the conflict zone.

Although the Regional Organization for the Conservation of the Environment of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden (PERSEGA) has prepared a draft regional contingency plan, in our assessment that plan would need considerable additional support to be tested, and further developed in order to be implemented in the event of an incident.   

To top it all, the COVID-19 crisis has relegated the potential oil spill issue further down the priority list of regional states.

The need for prevention

Prevention of such a crisis from precipitating is really the only option to avoid an environmental and human catastrophe.  Despite the difficult operational context, no effort should be spared to first conduct a technical assessment and initial light repairs. This will provide independent evidence of the appropriate next steps, while gaining additional time.

Given the age and condition to the tanker, it is likely that the safest option will be to remove the vessel. If this is confirmed by the assessment, it means we will need to work with the parties to:

  1. Offload the oil from the FSO Safer.
  2. Towing away of the FSO Safer to a safe location for inspection.
  3. Assessment and possible dismantlement of the FSO in an environmentally-sound manner. 

These elements are being discussed at different levels with the different shareholders. The immediate priority remains the same: assessment and light repairs.

The need for an accompanying backup plan in case of an oil spill

At the same time, we must nonetheless – and in tandem with such prevention efforts – continue to plan for an effective response should an oil spill occur.  

The United Nations Environment Programme has been working with the International Maritime Organization, the UN Office for Project Services, the Office for the Special Envoy for Yemen, the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and PERSEGA to develop a response plan.  

If the SAFER leaks, potentially spilling four times more oil into the Red Sea than the Exxon Valdez oil spill [Alaska, 1989, 275,000 barrels of oil spilled], ecosystems and fisheries would be damaged for an extended period into the future.  People who have already been impoverished by conflict would suffer further health and economic impacts.  An environmental crisis could exacerbate regional divisions.

Time is running out for us to act in a coordinated manner to prevent a looming environmental, economic and humanitarian catastrophe.

It is therefore imperative that access is granted to the FSO Safer to assess and inspect the current state of the vessel so that evacuation of the oil can be safely done to prevent this environmental and human catastrophe.

Thank you

Inger Andersen

Executive Director


[1] FSO SAFER is operated by SAFER Exploration and Production Company (SEPOC) and is located off the Red Sea coast of Yemen, approximately 4.8 nautical miles from Ras Isa, which is 60 km north of the port of Hodeidah. This area is currently under the control of the Ansar Allah authorities (hereafter referred to as the De Facto Authority or DFA). Source: Report on the Potential Environmental Risks to the Safer Floating Storage and Offloading Terminal (2019). Ministry of Water and Environment, Government of Yemen.

[2] Karine Kleinhaus et al (2019), Science, Diplomacy, and the Red Sea’s Unique Coral Reefs: It is time for Action, Front. Mar. Sci, 26 February 2020.

[3] Regional Organisation for the Conservation of the Environment of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. See here.

[4] FSO Safer, Oil Spill Dispersion Modelling – Rapid Modelling of Specific Scenarios, Phase I (2019). Tim Culmer, Riskaware Ltd, UK.

[5] FSO Safer, Atmospheric and Dispersion Modelling: Statistical Analyses Results (2020). Murrey Purveys, Riskaware Ltd, UK.

[6] FSO Safer, Oil Spill Dispersion Modelling – Rapid Modelling of Specific Scenarios, Phase I (2019). Tim Culmer, Riskaware Ltd, UK.

[7] Regional Specific Oil Pollution Contingency Plan (ROSCP) for Safer (FSO) Tanker (2020). Regional Organization for the Conservation of the Environment in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.