Any day now a vast, decrepit oil tanker languishing in the Red Sea will “sink, catch fire or explode”, says Ed Caesar in The New Yorker. The 45-year-old FSO Safer (pronounced “Saffer”) was permanently moored off the coast of Yemen in 1987 to serve as a floating storage facility for crude oil. It has since “degraded to the verge of collapse”. Inside its rusting hull are more than a million barrels of crude – four times the volume in the Exxon Valdez when it ran aground off the coast of Alaska in 1989. A serious leak would knock out the port of Hodeidah – source of two-thirds of Yemen’s food – for up to six months, leaving 300,000 children at risk of starving to death, according to Unicef.
The company in charge of the ship, Sepoc, used to spend $20m a year on upkeep and employed more than 50 people to look after it. But since the powerful Houthi clan staged a brutal coup in 2014, Sepoc has carried out only rudimentary emergency repairs, using a crew of seven. And the boiler is dead, which means inert gases are no longer being pumped into the fuel storage tanks, neutralising the flammable vapours that rise off the oil inside. As a result, the FSO Safer is one “tossed cigarette butt” from going up in a ball of flame.