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High-stakes UN operation underway in Yemen to avert catastrophic oil spill

The Safer has been at risk of breaking up or exploding for years.
The Safer has been at risk of breaking up or exploding for years.

High-stakes UN operation underway in Yemen to avert catastrophic oil spill

Climate and Environment

The UN on Tuesday began siphoning one million barrels of oil from a decaying supertanker off the coast of war-torn Yemen, a crucial step in the race against time to prevent a potential environmental disaster.

The supertanker, the FSO Safer, became a symbol - thanks largely to UN efforts - of the need for urgent action to avoid massive damage to the marine ecosystem in an area that is home to key global shipping lanes. 

The stranded rusting vessel holds four times the amount of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez – enough to make it the fifth largest oil spill from a tanker in history.

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‘Ticking time bomb’

“The United Nations has begun an operation to defuse what might be the world’s largest ticking time bomb. This is an all-hands-on-deck mission and the culmination of nearly two years of political groundwork, fundraising and project development" said UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

Lying north of the Yemeni port Hudaydah, UN officials have warned for years about the possibility that the 47-year-old tanker could crack and explode.

Existential marine threat

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) warned that a massive spill from the Safer would destroy swathes of marine life in the Red Sea.

Speaking to reporters in Geneva, spokesperson Sarah Bel expressed concern for the fishing communities on Yemen’s Red Coast, already living in a crisis-wracked situation, as a spill would like ‘wipe out 200,000 livelihoods instantly” and "fish stock would take twenty five years to recover.”

 Describing the operation as the first of its kind, she exercised caution during this “emergency phase” but assured reporters that everything had been put in place to “secure success.”

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.

In 2015, production and the maintenance of the tanker stopped due to the eight year conflict between a pro-Government Saudi-led coalition, and Houthi rebels. As a result, the vessel is now beyond repair.

The FSO Safer, moored off Yemen's west coast.
The FSO Safer, moored off Yemen's west coast.

Humanitarian and environmental disaster

According to UNDP, an oil spill would result in the closure of all ports in the area, cutting off food, fuel and other life-saving supplies to Yemen - a country where 80% of the population already rely on aid.

The UN chief warned that the cost of a cleanup alone would be $20 billion and said that shipping all the way to the Suez Canal could be disrupted for weeks.

 Praising the project’s cross-UN collaboration he highlighted the "relentless political work” that the operation entailed “in a country devastated by eight years of war.”

But he noted that this was just a “milestone in the journey”, as the next step involves securing the replacement vessel to a specialised safety buoy.

 The UN Secretary-General has called for a further $20 million to finish the project, including the scrapping of the Safer and removing any remaining environmental threats to the Red Sea.

Marine inspectors monitor the stricken Safer oil tanker.
Marine inspectors monitor the stricken Safer oil tanker.

‘Unique and unusual salvage operation’

The transfer of some 1.13 million barrels of crude oil from the FSO Safer to a second tanker known as the Yemen is taking place amid ongoing war between the Government and Houthi rebels.

Pumping began at 10:45 AM, local time, on Tuesday and will continue round-the-clock over the next 19 days.  UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner hailed the development as a major milestone.

“As we know, sadly Yemen is still a country that finds itself in the midst of conflict…with many consequences for its people,” he said, speaking via videoconference to journalists at UN Headquarters in New York.

“But one thread that has been looming large over the people of Yemen, but also the Red Sea and all the countries in the region, is this 47-year-old rusting tanker.”

Averting environmental catastrophe

The war brought production and offloading, as well as maintenance of the tanker, to a halt.

The UN negotiated with Yemen’s warring parties to bring about agreement and a framework for the oil retrieval to take place.

Some $121 million was raised from 23 Member States, the European Union, the private sector and also the public through a crowdfunding exercise.  The UN’s humanitarian agency, OCHA, also provided bridge funding, but some $20 million is still needed.

Pumping is being carried out by the salvage company, SMIT, but scores of other experts have been involved, including maritime oil spill experts, maritime lawyers, insurance brokers and shipbrokers.

A chemist is also constantly monitoring the level of gases in the tanks that have been pumped in order to reduce the risk of explosion.

'UN in the lead'

With the UN in the lead, the world has pulled together to avoid a nightmare scenario that has been talked about for the last eight years,” said David Gressly, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, speaking from the bridge of support vessel, Ndeavour, which arrived in the region in late May.

“The completion of the oil transfer will mean the worst-case humanitarian environmental and economic catastrophe will have been avoided, but it's not the end of the operation.”

He said the next critical steps include the delivery and installment of a catenary anchor leg mooring (CALM) buoy.  It will be attached to the pipeline to which the replacement vessel will be safely tethered and should be in place by September.

Oil sale

Mr. Steiner said discussions have also been held with both sides in Yemen regarding the sale of the oil which “is indeed on the horizon”.  Samples have been sent for laboratory testing and a qualitative assessment is expected in the coming days.

Both UN officials stressed that securing the oil to avert any spillover was the top priority.

“We have now bought a great deal of time to work out legal issues, the issues among the parties themselves on how to sell and what for,” Mr. Gressly added.

“So, we'll continue to work on that and encourage the parties to find a solution to eventually removing the oil, ideally for the benefit of the people of Yemen.  That's what we all want to see.”