Labour has called on the UK government to “protect people and planet” by taking urgent action on an abandoned oil tanker currently at risk of spilling 157,000 tonnes of crude oil into the Red Sea.
In a letter to the minister for the Middle East and North Africa, shadow ministers Anna McMorrin and Wayne David have warned that the Safer FSO Oil tanker could exacerbate the long-running humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
In the letter, the shadow ministers have described how any spillage would “deepen the world’s gravest humanitarian emergency in Yemen, dealing a significant blow to a country crippled by conflict, Covid-19 and now famine”.
They added: “It would also spark an environmental catastrophe, destroy endangered biodiversity, risk the health of local populations, and deliver a crushing economic and logistical setback to many aid-dependent and fragile states reliant on Red Sea shipping.”
The area where the ship has been resting for the past five years is under the control of Houthi rebels fighting the Saudi-backed Yemeni government. The UN’s attempts to inspect the ship have so far been blocked.
The current violence in the country began in March 2015 when a Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen on behalf of the government against Houthi rebels aligned with the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project estimated last year that the civil war, taking place in the Arab world’s poorest nation, has resulted in the death of more than 100,000 people over the past five years.
The Labour shadow ministers have explained to minister James Cleverly that the rapid structural deterioration as a result of neglect of the ship has meant that the decomposing tanker is significantly vulnerable to a breach and spillage.
Concerns over the ship were heightened after reports emerged that seawater had begun to leak into the 44-year old ship’s engine room. There has been no examination of the vessel and the cause of the leak remains unknown.
The UN has declared that the ship risks one of “most important repositories of biodiversity on the planet”. The Yemeni waters support internationally important species including marine mammals, sea turtles and seabirds.
Below is the full text of the letter sent to James Cleverly.
RE: FSO Safer oil tanker humanitarian and environmental threat to Yemen and the Red Sea
I am writing to you concerning the ongoing and increasingly urgent situation regarding the decaying and hazardous FSO Safer oil tanker abandoned off the coast of the Yemeni port of Al Hudaydah.
Having fallen into the hands of Houthi rebel forces in 2015, the rusting tanker has been severely neglected with rapid structural deterioration and the metal work corrosion in the saline waters of the Red Sea. The condition of the tanker and its decomposition means the tanker is significantly vulnerable to a total water breach of its tank, which holds over 1.1 million barrels, 157,000 tonnes, of crude oil.
A breach of the tanker and an oil spillage of any magnitude would deepen the world’s gravest humanitarian emergency in Yemen, dealing a significant blow to a country crippled by conflict, Covid-19 and now famine. It would also spark an environmental catastrophe, destroy endangered biodiversity, risk the health of coastal communities, and deliver a crushing economic and logistical setback to many aid-dependent and fragile states reliant on Red Sea shipping.
As we have discussed on many occasions, the plight of the Yemeni people continues to descend to new lows. The emergency is eroding what little resilience remains in the country.
24 million civilians require high-level aid-assistance and seven million require treatment for malnutrition. On health, nationwide hospital and medical service capacity has been halved. PPE and medical equipment are in short supply and there has been no widespread Covid-19 testing. The outbreak of cholera across the country continues to rise.
At this time of maximum vulnerability, there has been a simultaneous reduction in international funding for the humanitarian crisis, including a decrease in UK funding at the UN pledging conference 2nd June which Labour urged the government against. In recent days, the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Mark Lowcock, has also reiterated his dire warnings regarding aid funding shortfalls.
The humanitarian situation can, therefore, ill afford yet another disaster.
The environmental threat posed by the tanker endangers, what the UN calls ‘one of the most important repositories of biodiversity on the planet’. Ecocide of this scale would be unconscionable. A spill also risks the health and livelihoods of coastal communities through polluted waters, land and food chains, displacing communities from their homes. A clean up of this degree would also shut Al Hudaydah port, a major gateway to lifesaving aid for millions in an area of Yemen which is 90% aid-dependent. It would also close shipping lanes in the Red Sea, for up to 12 months, a major artery of trade and commerce in the region.
The FSO Safer situation has been ongoing for over five years. The scale of the humanitarian and environmental catastrophe which we are seeing unfold demands a solution.
We are calling on the UK government to use its significant global leadership and position as penholders over Yemen on the UN Security Council to 1) secure and preserve funding for a mobilised inspection team for when access is granted to examine this failing tanker and 2) use World Maritime Day and the theme to champion new frameworks to remove damaged or decaying tankers or ships from our seas. We must work with our international partners to prepare economic, humanitarian, environmental and logistical contingency plans to protect Yemen’s most vulnerable.
We must avoid the humanitarian situation being compounded by an irreparable ecological disaster. People and planet must be protected.
Anna McMorrin MP
Shadow minister for International Development
Shadow FCO minister for the Middle East and North Africa