CAIRO/LONDON: The United Nations is seeking $144 million on Wednesday needed to fund the salvage operation of a decaying tanker full of oil moored off the coast of Yemen, a ship whose demise could cause an environmental disaster.
The amount includes $80 million to transfer the more than 1 million barrels of crude oil the FSO Safer is carrying to storage, said David Gressly, the UN resident and humanitarian coordinator for Yemen.
The pledging conference, co-hosed by the UN and The Netherlands, comes more than two months after the UN and Yemen’s Houthi rebels reached an agreement to transfer the tanker’s contents to another vessel.
The Iranian-backed Houthis control Yemen’s western Red Sea ports — including Ras Issa, just six kilometers from where the FSO Safer has been moored since the 1980s.
Gressly said the vessel “is slowly rusting and going into significant decay,” and could explode, causing massive environmental damage to Red Sea marine life, desalination factories and international shipping routes.
“Every day that passes, every month that passes, every year that passes, increases the chance that the vessel will break up and spill its contents,” he warned in a news briefing earlier this week.
He said the UN estimates that about $20 billion would be needed to just clean up an oil spill.
Gressly said the first phase of salvage should be completed by the end of September, otherwise it could face turbulent winds that start in October.
The US commended Gressly for leading the international community to find an immediate and durable solution to the threats posed by the derelict Safer oil tanker and for the strong role played by the Netherlands.
“We joined efforts to galvanize support for the UN’s emergency plan to offload oil from the Safer to avert a regional environmental catastrophe, an economic disruption with global ramifications, and exacerbation of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in Yemen,” US envoy to Yemen said in a statement.
Tim Lenderking said they have seen some of the most significant progress in the last month to bring peace to Yemen, and the UN-led two-month truce is holding for the first time in six years.
The US has provided technical and scientific support and senior level advocacy to address the threat, and has supported UN efforts on readiness, contingency, and response planning, he said.
“The US Department of State, working with the US Congress and other US agencies, is seriously exploring how to further support this urgent UN-led effort, and we will have more on that in coming days, following today’s launch,” Lenderking added.
He thanked donors who pledged at the conference and said: “Today marks the beginning of a unique opportunity to finally address the Safer’s threats to the Gulf and the region, and environmental heritage and maritime routes of global importance.
“We must seize it and take action now to avoid the economic, environmental, and humanitarian consequences of an oil spill or explosion in the Red Sea,” he said, calling on the “private sector, which has so much to lose from such a disaster, to join us in taking urgent action.”
The Japanese-built tanker was sold to the Yemeni government in the 1980s to store up to 3 million barrels of export oil pumped from fields of Marib province, currently a battlefield. The ship is 360 meters (1,181 feet) long with 34 storage tanks.
Since 2015, annual maintenance on the ship has come to a complete halt. Most crew members, except for 10 people, were pulled off the vessel after the Saudi-led coalition entered Yemen’s civil war in 2015 on the side of the internationally recognized government.
Yemen’s conflict started in 2014 when the Houthis took control of the capital and much of the country’s north, forcing the government to flee to the south, then to Saudi Arabia.
The UN has repeatedly warned that the tanker could release four times more oil than the notorious Exxon Valdez disaster off Alaska in 1989.