UN says $144 million needed to avert oil tanker disaster off Yemen

The United Nations on Wednesday sought $144 million to fund the salvage operation of a rotting oil tanker moored off the coast of Yemen, a ship whose death could cause an environmental disaster.

The amount includes $80 million to transfer the more than 1 million barrels of crude oil the FSO Safer carries to storage, said David Gressly, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Yemen.

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The pledge conference, co-hosted by the UN and the Netherlands, comes more than two months after the UN and the Yemeni Houthis reached an agreement to transfer the tanker’s contents to another vessel. The agreement also includes a commitment by the UN to provide a “replacement equivalent to the FSO Safer suitable for export” within 18 months.

Secretary General Antonio Guterres appealed for funds to implement the plan the UN had reached with the Houthis to avert a disaster that could also disrupt traffic through the Red Sea and Suez Canal.

“Today’s event is a critical step to prevent a catastrophe that would hit Yemen, the region and the world,” he told the pledge conference in a video message.

The Iranian-backed Houthis control the western Red Sea ports in Yemen — including Ras Issa, just 6 kilometers (about 4 miles) from where the FSO Safer has been moored since the 1980s.

The Houthis criticized the UN on Tuesday for allegedly “not presenting an operational plan” to maintain the tanker, more than two months since they signed the memorandum of understanding, a statement that could complicate UN fund-raising efforts.

There was no immediate comment from the UN on the Houthi statement, but the organization previously accused the Iranian-backed Houthis of delaying their maintenance plans.

Gressly said the ship is slowly rusting and falling into significant disrepair, and could explode, causing massive environmental damage to marine life in the Red Sea, desalination plants and international shipping lanes.

“Every day that goes by, every month that goes by, every year that goes by increases the chances that the ship will break and its contents spill,” he told reporters earlier this week.

Gressly said the UN estimates it would take about $20 billion to clean up an oil spill, likely to affect nearby countries, including Saudi Arabia, Djibouti and Eritrea. He also said the first phase of the salvage should be completed by the end of September or it could face turbulent winds starting in October.

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. The ship is 360 meters long and has 34 storage tanks.

Since 2015, the annual maintenance of the ship has been completely stopped. Most of the crew, with the exception of 10 people, were taken from the ship after the Arab coalition entered the civil war in Yemen in 2015 on the side of the internationally recognized government.

The conflict in Yemen started in 2014 when the Houthis took over the capital and much of the north of the country and forced the government to flee to the south.

Internal documents obtained by The Associated Press in 2020 show that seawater has entered the tanker’s engine compartment, damaging pipes and increasing the risk of sinking. Rust has covered parts of the tanker and the inert gas that prevents the tanks from collecting flammable gases has leaked out. According to an AP report, according to experts, maintenance is no longer possible because the damage to the ship is irreversible.

The UN has repeatedly warned that the tanker could release four times more oil than the infamous Exxon Valdez disaster off the coast of Alaska in 1989.

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