UN coordinator urges public help with funding to stave off ‘5th largest oil spill from a tanker in history’

UNDP buys Euronav’s VLCC to prevent catastrophic spill from ‘ticking bomb’ FSO off Yemen

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) signed an agreement with tanker owner EURONAV Luxemburg to buy a very large crude carrier (VLCC), as part of the UN-coordinated operation to remove more than one million barrels of oil from a decaying tanker off Yemen’s Red Sea coast.

FSO Safer; Source: The UN

The new vessel to replace the FSO Safer is now in drydock for modifications and regular maintenance before sailing to the FSO Safer, currently moored about nine kilometers off Yemen’s Ras Issa peninsula. It is expected to arrive in early May 2023 for the operation. The VLCC has reportedly been sold for $55 million.

UNDP, which is implementing the high-risk operation as part of the UN-coordinated initiative, is contracting marine salvage company SMIT to safely remove the oil and prepare the FSO Safer for towing to a green salvage yard.

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“The purchase of this suitable vessel by UNDP marks the beginning of the operational phase of the UN-coordinated plan to safely remove the oil from the Safer and avoid the risk of an environmental and humanitarian disaster on a massive scale,” UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner said.

“We must accept that this is a very challenging and complex operation. UNDP is working around the clock with experts from UN sister agencies including IMO, WFP and UNEP among others as well as international consultancies on maritime law, insurance and environmental impact to ensure that we are deploying the best possible expertise to successfully complete this operation.”

The FSO Safer has been at the center of heated debate for several years now as the vessel poses a threat of a humanitarian and environmental catastrophe.

The Floating Storage and Offloading (FSO) Safer vessel is moored approximately 8 kilometres off the coast of Yemen and 50 kilometres northeast of the port of Hodeida.

Constructed in 1976 as an oil tanker and converted in 1987 to be a floating storage facility, the vessel is single-hulled and is believed to contain an estimated 1.148 million barrels of light crude oil.

The supertanker has not been maintained since 2015 because of the conflict in Yemen, and 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. Whole communities would be exposed to life-threatening toxins. Highly polluted air would affect millions,” UNDP said.

What is more, a spill would close the ports of Hodeidah and Saleef – which are essential to bring food, fuel and lifesaving supplies into Yemen, where 17 million people need food assistance.

The UN estimates that the cost of cleanup alone is estimated at $20 billion. Disruptions to shipping through the Bab al-Mandab strait to the Suez Canal could cost billions more in global trade losses every day, as happened after the Ever Given grounded in the Canal in 2021.

Therefore, the purchase of the vessel is a critical development in operation to remove more than one million barrels of oil from the decaying supertanker off Yemen’s Red Sea coast. However, funding is still urgently needed to complete the safe removal of oil, UNDP said.

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As of 7 March, the UN has raised $95 million, of which $75 million has been received. The total budget for the emergency phase of the project is $129 million. UNDP noted that due to recent price increases for suitable vessels, triggered mainly by the war in Ukraine, more money is still needed to complete the emergency phase of the plan.

“UNDP’s purchase of the vessel is indeed a major step, made possible by the generosity of donors, the private sector and global citizens. The parties to the conflict continue to endorse the plan. 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,” David Gressly, the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, who has led on UN system-wide efforts on the Safer since September 2021, said.

To fill the budget gap, the UN is re-launching a crowdfunding appeal that saw thousands of individuals around the world contribute to the FSO Safer project in 2021.