In early April 2022, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for the country, David Gressly, urged that critical funding and timely action are needed to prevent the FSO Safer, a decaying tanker anchored close to Yemen’s coastline, from sparking a major oil spill. Gressly also outlined plans to address this threat, describing it as “a time bomb sitting off Yemen’s Red Sea coast.”
To this end, the UN will hold a donor conference on Wednesday in the Netherlands in a bid to raise the $80 million required for its plan to offload the oil from this FSO, which is stranded eight kilometres off Ras Isa port on the Houthi-held west coast. While these wheels are being set in motion to start the required work by the beginning of June and finish it “by the end of September to avoid the turbulent winds,” the plan’s success in adhering to this timeline and preventing the oil spill hinges on donor commitments, thus, this event needs to rake in the funds needed to make this happen.
This 45-year-old FSO unit holds 1.1 million barrels of oil, which is four times the amount of the tanker – Exxon Valdez – that caused – what is often described as – one of the greatest environmental disasters in United States’ history near Alaska in 1989. Many expert engineers and environmentalists have warned that the FSO Safer poses an imminent risk of spilling a massive amount of oil due to leakages or an explosion.
To address this threat, the UN-coordinated plan with an overall cost of around $80 million has received the backing of the Yemeni Government, based in Aden. This plan covers two tracks, which are expected to run simultaneously. The first part calls for installing a long-term replacement for the decrepit tanker within an 18-month period, while the second one entails an emergency operation to transfer the oil to a safe temporary vessel over four months to eliminate any immediate threat.
The UN intends to keep the FSO Safer and the temporary vessel in place until all the oil is transferred to the permanent replacement vessel. Afterwards, the FSO Safer, which ceased production, offloading and maintenance in 2015 due to the conflict between a pro-government Saudi-led coalition, and Houthi rebels, would be towed to a yard and sold for salvage.
While previous UN mediation efforts had failed to bear fruit in reaching an agreement for UN-commissioned engineers to board the FSO, after Yemen implemented a ceasefire, a memorandum of understanding was signed in March 2022 with the de facto authorities in the capital, Sana’a, who control the area where the FSO Safer is located.
Furthermore, the FSO Safer has been moored some 4.8 nautical miles southwest of the Ras Issa peninsula on Yemen’s west coast for more than 30 years and Gressly warned in April that a significant spill would have devastating consequences for Yemen and beyond. It is expected that some 200,000 livelihoods in the already war and crisis-wracked country could be instantly wiped out, and families would be exposed to life-threatening toxins.
Commenting on the upcoming UN event to raise a total of $80 million needed to transfer the oil from the abandoned tanker, Greenpeace, said: “There is finally an agreed plan to solve the problem and give hope to the Yemeni people. It must be implemented before October, when the wind and the currents will be too dangerous and hinder any rescue operation.
“Lack of funding cannot be used as an excuse to fail: the international community has the moral responsibility to intervene in solidarity and contribute to protect the people of Yemen and the natural wonders of the Red Sea.”
Should the FSO release over million barrels of oil into the Red Sea, it would have a severe impact on water, reefs, and life-supporting mangroves, leading to an ecological and humanitarian crisis, while also putting Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia at risk. It is estimated that the clean-up alone would cost $20 billion.
“That does not count the cost of environmental damage across the Red Sea. Or the billions that could be lost due to disruptions to shipping through the Bab al-Mandab Strait, which is also a passageway to the Suez Canal,” elaborated Gressly in New York last month.
To further stress the importance of averting this calamity, the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen further advised to “think of the Ever Given,” referring to the container ship, which ran aground in the Suez Canal a year ago, disrupting global trade.