UN coordinator urges public to help stave off ‘5th largest oil spill from a tanker in history’
Only days before emergency operations are scheduled to take place to head off a decaying oil tanker threat, a UN Humanitarian Coordinator has urged the public to help with funding to prevent a catastrophic oil spill in the Red Sea, as the work to transfer the oil to a safe vessel is already delayed because of insufficient funding.
The UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, David Gressly, in a post on Twitter from Sunday, 26 June 2022, called on the public to help “cross the finish line” to get the required funds in place for the first part of the operation to take place.
Back in September 2021, the United Nations’ senior management instructed Gressly to coordinate all efforts to mitigate the threat posed by an aging supertanker in an advanced state of decay, known as the FSO Safer, and strengthen contingency plans in the event of a catastrophic oil leak.
Following several months of discussions with all relevant stakeholders, an UN-coordinated operational plan was presented to address the threat. The UN says that the government of Yemen in Aden supports this initiative along with the Sana’a-based authorities, who control the area where the vessel is located. To this end, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed with the Houthi stronghold Sana’a on 5 March, establishing a framework for cooperation in which the Sana’a authorities have committed to facilitating the success of the project.
The plan to address the threat posed by the FSO Safer comprises two critical tracks. This refers to the installation of a long-term replacement vessel or another capacity equivalent to the FSO within a target of 18 months. Since the situation is perceived to be too dangerous to wait for the replacement vessel, a four-month emergency operation by a global maritime salvage company is required to eliminate the immediate threat by transferring the oil from the FSO Safer to a secure temporary vessel.
However, as the implementation of this plan cannot start without donor funding, the goal is to raise funds to start the $80 million emergency operation to transfer oil from the FSO Safer to prevent an oil spill that could spell disaster for the region and beyond.
The two-track plan has an overall cost of $144 million, however, donors have pledged or contributed $40 million to the UN-coordinated plan to address the threat. Therefore, the UN’s implementation of the emergency rescue operation was delayed because of insufficient funding for the transfer operation as there is a $104 million gap in funding for the two-track plan, while $40 million is “most urgently needed” to start work on the emergency operation.
To bridge the funding gap and start the emergency operation, the UN launched a crowdfunding campaign earlier this month, which encourages people everywhere to contribute towards raising $5 million in individual donations by the end of this month so that work can start in July.
In October, increasingly volatile currents and high winds make the emergency operation more dangerous and increase the risk of the ship breaking up, thus, the UN outlines that “every day we wait for funding delays the start of the operation, bringing closer the day when the vessel will break apart.”
Moored off Yemen’s Red Sea coast, the FSO Safer contains more than a million barrels of oil and is considered to be beyond repair, as it could soon break apart or explode. This 376-metre-long FSO is among the largest tankers in the world and holds roughly four times the crude oil that was spilt during the Exxon Valdez disaster, off Alaska, in 1989. Therefore, the UN says that this is “enough to make it the 5th largest oil spill from a tanker in history.”
The FSO Safer has been anchored just a few miles off the Yemen coast for more than 30 years, but the war between the pro-government coalition and Houthi rebels saw offloading from the vessel, as well as maintenance, grind to a halt in 2015. Taking this into consideration, the UN says that “if we do not act now, the result will be an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe centred on the coast of a country already devasted by seven years of war.”
A massive oil spill threat like the one posed by the FSO Safer would “destroy pristine reefs, coastal mangroves and other sea life across the Red Sea, expose millions of people to highly polluted air, and cut off food, fuel and other life-saving supplies to Yemen, where 17 million people already need food aid,” emphasised the UN.
In such a case, coastal communities would be hit hardest with hundreds of thousands of jobs in the fishing industry becoming history almost overnight. The UN further elaborated that it would take 25 years for fish stocks to recover, while the cost of cleanup alone would be $20 billion and vital shipping through the Bab al-Mandab Strait to the Red Sea could be disrupted for an extended period, costing billions of dollars per day.
This sort of calamity would be a repeat of the Ever Given disaster, disrupting global trade just like this container ship did when it ran aground in the Suez Canal over a year ago.