• Risk: Oil spill of floating storage and offloading vessel could cause high environmental impact in the Red Sea and Yemen

    Latest update: 17/07/2019

    No. of people affected

    Current situation
    Future situation
    9.5 million


    Highly unlikely Somewhat likely Highly likely


    Very low Moderate Major


    The floating storage and offloading (FSO) terminal SAFER, a previously converted oil tanker, is moored in the Red Sea off the coast of Ras Issa, 50km northwest of Al Hudaydah port. Since 2015, the FSO has been under Houthi control; however, they have stopped maintaining the structure. The FSO has been  neglected probably due to lack of capacity, coupled with the fact that following the Saudi-led coalition naval blockade in 2015 and airstrikes on the Al Hudaydah port’s infrastructure, the Houthis were unable to carry out any type of oil operation.

    The Houthis have been demanding a share of the one million barrels of oil on board the vessel. Until recently, they had prevented experts from Yemen’s Ministry of Oil or the UN from accessing the FSO SAFER. Some Saudi experts have proposed moving the vessel to Bahrain for maintenance, however the Houthis have refused.  The Houthis are demanding a share of the oil revenues as a condition for allowing access to the vessel for maintenance work and unloading. However, on 10 June they allowed access to UN officials for an assessment. Without intervention for maintenance in the coming months, the vessel is likely to break or even explode, because of the lack of inert gas. Topping up the vessel with inert gas during maintenance is essential to avoid the vessel being in contact with hydrocarbon gases, which would cause a fire or explosion.

    The possibility of a serious leakage or even explosion increases year on year due to continued lack of maintenance. Furthermore, even small accidents or fires on board have the potential to spiral out of control. If Hadi government experts attempt to approach the vessel, there is a risk of conflict on or near the vessel.

    Sources: Debriefer 14/07/2019; Middle East Eye 17/06/2019; Reuters 01/05/2019; CEOBS 01/05/2019; Adenpress 09/05/2019; The National 09/05/2019; Atlantic Council 11/04/2019; UNOPS 2018.


    The vessel contains an estimated 1.14 million barrels of crude oil. If an oil spill occurs, the environmental impact will be catastrophic, affecting people living in the coastal area of Yemen (est. 8.9 million) and the coastal regions of Eritrea (est. 517,200) (ACAPS projections based on IOM and Eritrea baseline population figures). In Yemen, the most affected area will likely be Al Hudaydah governorate as the FSO terminal is 50km northwest of al Hudaydah port.

    An oil spill would certainly lead to the pollution of the Red Sea and eventually groundwater and soil contamination as the oil evaporates. This would change the entire ecosystem, and pollute the fishing and agricultural food chain. In addition, the shipping traffic in the Red Sea might be blocked for oil spill containment and cleanup. The most vulnerable are the inhabitants of the coastal region because they will be directly affected by pollution of waters and halt of imports of basic commodities. An explosion of the facility will also change the Red Sea marine environment, possibly reducing fishing yields for generations.

    The vessel oil spill or explosion is likely to lead to the disruption of economic activities, such as fishing, one of the main livelihood activities for households living in the Red Sea coastal region of Yemen, as well as agriculture, and trade. This will further affect the already dire livelihood conditions of households in the region, reducing their income and ability to meet basic needs.

    The closure of the area will also halt imports through Al Hudaydah ports. The majority of food (70% of all imports) and fuel (40-50% of all imports), as well as the majority of medicines and humanitarian aid, enter through Al Hudaydah ports. As Yemen is an import and aid dependent economy, a possible explosion of the vessel or oil spill will aggravate the food and health crisis in the country.

    On top of the the potential environmental devastation and economic impact, an oil spill or explosion of the FSO SAFER will likely break the fragile ceasefire in Al Hudaydah established under Stockholm Agreement, and lead to possible escalation of conflict in the governorate, due to increased tensions between the Houthis and Hadi’s government

    Sources: Environmental Pollution Centers 04/06/2019; Atlantic Council 11/04/2019; UNOPS 2018.

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