UN crowdfunding to prevent FSO Safer tanker oil spill off Yemen
Seawater has already seeped into the engine room, say UN officials who are sounding the alarm that a tank rupture would wreak havoc on marine life, vital shipping lanes and regional economies.
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For years, the United Nations sought to launch a salvage mission to transfer the oil and move the ship to a safer location for inspections or dismantling. But the ship is anchored in waters northwest of the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah, near territory held by Iran-aligned Houthi rebels. The 2014 war between them and the now Saudi-backed government ended maintenance and prevented any unloading.
The opposing sides have finally agreed on a plan to prevent disaster, the UN said, but now it does not have the money to implement it.
“The tanker is beyond repair, and the fear is that it could soon break up or explode,” the global body said this week when launching the online crowdfunding campaign.
The UN announcement says it has raised about three-quarters of the money needed to transfer the oil to another vessel, after Saudi Arabia and the United States recently pledged $10 million each , following pledges from the Netherlands, France, Qatar and others that brought the total in the hands of the UN to $60 million.
To help pay for the remaining $20 million, United Nations coordinator for Yemen David Gressly is appealing online to people around the world to raise $5 million by the end of the month so that the works can start in July.
During a Monday briefing, Gressly seemed to acknowledge that the public’s appeal for $5 million was unusual, describing it as “a lofty goal”, but argued disaster was looming. Increased currents and winds in winter will increase the risk of vessel breakage and oil spillage in the Red Sea.
“Every day that passes is another day that we take a risk, a chance that this ship will break and the disaster that I have described will occur,” he said.
The whole plan, involving first unloading oil, then replacing the 1,230ft vessel – one of the largest tankers in the world – would cost $144 million, according to UN estimates.
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A disaster in the Red Sea would add to the plight of Yemenis who have endured nearly eight years of war, famine and disease, and threaten the livelihoods of many who depend on the resources of the sea. Gressly said the repopulation fisheries could take up to 25 years.
UN officials say an oil spill from the Safer would destroy ecosystems in the Red Sea, an important sphere of biodiversity, and take decades and at least $20 billion to clean up.
Calling the tanker a “ticking time bomb”, US special envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking said this month that Washington was urging not only governments but also private companies that use the Red Sea for commercial purposes , to increase funding for the UN project.
Lenderking added that the Houthis had agreed with UN officials on offloading the oil, which would remove more immediate economic, humanitarian and environmental threats, while talks about what would happen to the oil and how to tow the vessel would take place later.
According to the memorandum of understanding signed in March, a short-term solution would be to transfer the oil from the Safer to another vessel. But the agreement depends on the mobilization of funds from donors.
The Houthis have repeatedly called on the UN to present the operational plan stipulated in the memorandum and accused them of “delaying in taking practical and technical steps to start servicing the Safer reservoir”.
They also warned that any funding for the project in the absence of a UN commitment to implement the terms of the memorandum would risk repeating the fate of previously allocated funds, but they did not increase further.
Lenderking told reporters it could take just “a cigarette butt, a gunshot, [or] a choppy wave” to cause a spill, and he said the supertanker was also at risk of exploding.
A study commissioned by the United Nations in recent years found that a spill or explosion could drive up fuel and food prices, cause crop losses and contaminate thousands of water wells. It would kill marine mammals, sea turtles and seabirds, destroy pristine coral reefs and eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs in the fishing industry.
Ali Al-Mujahed in Sanaa, Yemen contributed to this report.