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High risks on the high seas

High risks on the high seas

Photo Credit:  UN.org

On Wednesday 8th June it was World Oceans Day.  It is one of many UN awareness days that run throughout the year, yet despite covering two-thirds of the surface of planet Earth, the oceans are very much a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’.  We all need to be more engaged with the oceans and their challenges.  Why? Because the sea impacts us all, either directly or indirectly, as do a great number of issues: geo-politics, security, supply chain, pollution, and climate change the more common headline risks.  Occasionally, however, you will come across a cause célèbre – a multiple, inter-connected, and very complex set of risks.

A less reported challenge to the oceans, in particular the Red Sea, is one I am very familiar with – and it hit the headlines again last week.  It is the case of the FSO Safer, a 400-metre, single-skinned supertanker converted in 1986 to a floating storage and offloading vessel (FSO) permanently moored off the port city of Al Hudaydah, Yemen.  It is estimated that 1.2m barrels of Marib crude oil are stored on the vessel.  Until the outbreak of the Yemeni Civil War in 2015, it was staffed, operated, and maintained by the Yemen state-owned company Safer. During the early days of this civil war, in March 2015, Houthi insurgents seized the FSO Safer.

Since 2015, no auditable maintenance or safety checks have been conducted. Environmental groups, such as Greenpeace, and the governments of neighbouring countries have been campaigning to address the multiple risks the FSO Safer poses.  The UN has also tirelessly been trying to flag the risks associated with the FSO Safer: it has been raised almost every month at meetings of the UN Security Council.

The FSO Safer, the continued risk of a fire, explosion, or oil spill, and the consequential risks these pose are an example of many aspects of risk and crisis management. The case of the FSO Safer provides us with much to consider when assessing multiple and inter-connected risks. The consequential risks of an oil spill from the FSO Safer would impact many other countries and people near and far. Here are just a few – some of which readers may wish to consider for their own risk register review:


An oil spill would be catastrophic to the delicate and pristine Red Sea marine environment. Underwater adventurer and SCUBA-system inventor Jacques Cousteau conducted his first expedition at the Farsan Islands, just 400km to the north of the FSO Safer.


Yemen’s fishing industry would be decimated for years. In a country already experiencing famine, an oil spill would create a much bigger humanitarian catastrophe: something the international community would need to respond to and support for many years.

Water Security

Many neighbouring countries rely on desalination plants along the Red Sea coast for potable water. An oil spill would significantly impact water security in the surrounding countries, as well as the potential political, economic, and societal consequences.

Red Sea Shipping lanes

The Red Sea shipping lanes would be blocked for the entire period of an oil spill clean-up. We all remember the chaos caused by the Ever Given blocking the Suez Canal at the other end of the Red Sea.  An oil spill would cause major disruption for considerably longer. To put it into perspective, the largest accidental oil spill at the BP Deep Water Horizon platform was four million barrels and took three months to clean up – and that was a peaceful country that had the financial and technical resources close at hand.  An oil spill from the FSO Safer would severely disrupt this critical maritime supply chain for much longer and have a far-reaching impact on the global economy.

Red Sea port access

Red Sea ports would be severely impacted. They would either be closed or only able to accept and send cargo and shipments from and to the north and the west.  The regional economic ramifications of this would be far-reaching. Moreover, and Al Hudaydah could not be used for essential humanitarian shipments.

Over recent years, there have been several attempts made by the UN to access the Houthi-held vessel to conduct a safety and essential repairs mission.  The urgency of this was flagged following a leak of oil from the engine room in 2019, and an advanced stage, planned inspection and maintenance mission was abandoned in 2021 when negotiations for access collapsed. Since then, there has been a ceasefire in the Yemeni Civil War and further negotiations have pursed a more permanent solution – make safe the vessel, offload the oil, clean and then prepare the vessel for decommissioning.  It is a hugely complex task on so many levels, including the ownership of the oil and a replacement storage facility for the oil.

A breakthrough came earlier this month when the UN announced a plan for this complex task spanning over 18 months with an estimated cost of US$144m.  There is a shortfall of US$80m, so a crowdfunding campaign was launched on 13th June to raise this for the initial emergency operation to transfer the oil.  It is a case of taking real action to mitigate the risks through a high profile, ‘call to action’ campaign of collective international responsibility to solve the problem and remove the consequential risks.

Very often, we don’t really recognise or acknowledge risks until we need to, through crisis management and communications.  Or worse, on occasions when it will be sadly too late.  The case of an aged and near-abandoned oil tanker in the middle of a conflict zone in the southern Red Sea may seem to be very far away and a classic case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’, but it will hopefully be a prompt to take a wider look at both organisational risks and consequential risks.  And if the FSO Safer poses a consequential risk to your organisation, nudge your government or your CFO to chip into the UN crowdfunding campaign.  It will help protect this delicate marine environment, save a life, and, potentially, save you a lot of money and disruption.

References and background reading:

Yemen: UN launches crowdfunding campaign to head off decaying oil tanker threat

Animation of the task to make safe and offload the FSO Safer

Donate to the UN-coordinated plan.  A contribution of any amount brings us closer to preventing this disaster in the Red Sea

The ship that became a bomb

The 14 Biggest Oil Spills in History

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