U.N. officials began putting into place their long-term solution to prevent the F.S.O. Safer, a rotting supertanker off Yemen's Red Sea coast, from spilling more than 1 million barrels of oil and causing a major environmental catastrophe.
They've agreed to buy a replacement "Very Large Crude Carrier" for US$55 million as part of an elaborate plan to offload the oil from the rapidly decaying supertanker starting in early May. The U.N. Development Program said it signed a purchase agreement Thursday with Belgium's tanker shipping company Euronav.
“The purchase of this suitable vessel by UNDP marks the beginning of the operational phase of the U.N.-coordinated plan to safely remove the oil from the Safer and avoid the risk of an environmental and humanitarian disaster on a massive scale," said UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner.
"We must accept that this is a very challenging and complex operation," he said, adding that UNDP is "working around the clock" to carry out the plan with experts from U.N. sister agencies, including the International Maritime Organization, World F00d Progra and U.N. Environment Program, and with international consultancies on maritime law, insurance and environmental impacts.
It's been a long time coming. The FSO Safer has been moored off the coast of northwest Yemen – toward the end of a pipeline that leads to the oil and gas fields near Marib city – and nearly sank in 2020. The threat is so immense that David Gressly, the U.N.'s resident and humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, has been tasked with solving the problem since Sept. 2021.
The plan involves major fundraising, including a crowdfunding appeal. The emergency phase alone has a budget of US$129 million, for which the U.N. has received US$75 million so far and secured another US$20 million in pledges.
“UNDP’s purchase of the vessel is indeed a major step, made possible by the generosity of donors, the private sector and global citizens," said Gressly.
"The parties to the conflict continue to endorse the plan," he said. "Now we are into the operational phase and hopeful the oil will be removed from the Safer within the next three to four months. But we still urgently need funding to implement the plan and prevent disaster.”
Threat of toxins, air pollution and more
Yemen is impoverished and largely dysfunctional after more than eight years of regional proxy war starting in 2014, when the Iran-backed rebel Houthis overran the capital, Sanaa, and much of the country’s north.
Led by Saudi Arabia, a Western-backed alliance of Sunni Muslim Arab nations tried to support an internationally recognized government, but its president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, was driven from Sanaa by the militia in 2015.
The replacement vessel is being worked on in drydock to replace the FSO Safer, which has not been maintained since 2015 because of the conflict in Yemen, UNDP said, adding: "It has decayed to the point where there is an imminent risk it could explode or break apart, which would have disastrous effects on the region."
"A major spill would devastate fishing communities on Yemen’s Red Sea coast, likely wiping out 200,000 livelihoods instantly," it said. "Whole communities would be exposed to life-threatening toxins. Highly polluted air would affect millions."
Such a spill would also shutter the ports of Hodeidah and Saleef that the country depends on to bring in food, fuel and other essential supplies for the 17 million people who are in need of food assistance. Yemen's desalination plants would also be forced to close, depriving millions of people of a source of water.
More than 150,000 people, including at least 14,500 civilians, have been killed by the fighting in Yemen, where climate change and other crises has caused massive humanitarian needs for food, shelter and other basic items.
The spilled oil could wash ashore on Africa's coastlines, including all those along the Red Sea, according to UNDP, which says a cleanup would cost an estimated US$20 billion and polluted fish stocks would take 25 years to recover. Each day of disruption to shipping nearby could cost billions more in global trade losses.