In Yemen, small crew stops oil spill in Red Sea

When an alarm went off on a wrecked oil tanker near Yemen, indicating a leak in the engine room, Hussein Nasser did not hesitate to intervene, counting his hours to avoid an ecological and humanitarian disaster in the Red Sea Did.

Near Hodeidah in the west of the country, Hussein Nasser and half a dozen crew members of the FSO Sefer made makeshift iron bands to repair a burst pipe before divers made a rescue operation to save the ship from sinking by sea water. Arrived to install permanent steel plate.

“Tensions are still high because of the dilapidated condition of the ship,” Hussain Nasser, engineer of the wrecked supertanker carrying more than a million barrels of oil, told AFP.

“Sefer is like a front line and we had to fight, like on a military front line,” continues the fifty-year-old man with short graying hair.

A ship crash or explosion could indeed lead to a huge oil spill, which could destroy flora and fauna, coastal fishing villages, for a country already facing one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. May wreak havoc on maritime traffic and essential ports.

Yemen, the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula, has been torn apart by conflict between the Houthis, Iranian-backed rebels, and pro-government forces backed by Saudi Arabia.

47 years old, neglected during more than eight years of war, the FSO Sefer is finally set to benefit from a complex and expensive rescue operation under the supervision of the United Nations, starting this week.

The first objective: the transfer of oil to a replacement ship, the Nautica, which arrived on Sunday.

– Forgotten Hero –

The FSO Safer is in poor condition, with rust and fungus spreading on its red and brown hull, which has lost four millimeters in thickness in several places.

He says the Houthis, who control the port of Hodeidah, are quick to praise people like Hussein Nasser as “unsung heroes”.

“The crew is sometimes composed of only three or five people, compared to 72 people before the war,” said Idris al-Shami, the boss of the oil company Safer, employed by the Houthis.

The hull of the FSO Safer oil tanker being abandoned at the Yemeni port of Hodeidah in the Red Sea on July 15, 2023 (AFP – Mohammed Huwais)

The manager reported, “He worked in the middle of all these flammable gases and almost floating in oil.”

He regrets, “They worked in dangerous conditions. They managed to repair the ship. And they were not recognized.”

Faced with these “forgotten heroes”, the Houthis point the finger at its allies, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, accusing them of maintaining a blockade on the port of Hodeidah, thus depriving FSO Safer of essential operations. .

Yet the Houthis have long been accused of using Safer’s fortune as a bargaining chip, blocking UN inspection demands with the demand that they be allowed to pay their officers’ salaries. Oil revenue should be given for this.

– “A few minutes of sleep” –

“Any oil tanker needs regular maintenance to ensure its safety,” Ibrahim al-Moshqi, head of Hodeidah’s maritime affairs authority, told AFP.

Leaks below deck are especially difficult to repair because of the heat and fumes from the crude oil, which can pose an explosion hazard.

The FSO protected supertanker departs the port of Hodeidah, Yemen, July 15, 2023 (AFP - Mohamed Huwais)
The FSO protected supertanker departs the port of Hodeidah, Yemen, July 15, 2023 (AFP – Mohamed Huwais)

In the city of Hodeidah, the popular fish market would almost certainly have been closed in the event of an oil spill. According to the United Nations, half a million people work in the fishing industry in the region, 200,000 of whom have seen their livelihoods “immediately destroyed”.

“All must have been seriously affected,” insists engineer Hussain Nasir, and salutes fishermen from afar as they unload carts full of fish.

Fifty years old, he says he is ready for any new mission Marine officers decide to assign him. But after years aboard a ship that was in danger of sinking or exploding, he finally dreamed of “a few minutes of sleep and rest”.

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