Sunday May 8, 2022
The UN is to stage a rare donor conference on Wednesday in a
bid to raise the $80m (£65m) necessary to prevent an ageing oil tanker off the
west coast of Yemen exploding and causing an environmental disaster potentially
four times worse than the Exxon Valdez spill near Alaska in 1989.
The money is needed to offload more than 1.14m barrels of
oil that have been sitting in the decrepit cargo ship, Safer, for more than six
years because of an impasse between Houthi groups and the Saudi-backed
government over ownership and responsibility.
Previous UN mediation efforts over the potentially lethal
byproduct of Yemen’s civil war have failed, partly because the Houthi rebels
that now control the capital, Sana’a, have not been able to agree terms for
UN-commissioned engineers to board the ship. The Houthis have regarded the ship
and its lucrative cargo as their possession and a bargaining chip in the
negotiations with the Saudi- and Emirati-backed forces.
Expert engineers and environmentalists have warned the ship
is an unexploded timebomb capable of causing an ecological disaster. UN
estimates suggest that if the ship’s cargo is unleashed into the Red Sea, more
than 200,000 fishermen would lose their jobs and $20bn would be required for a
But under a new agreement, laboriously negotiated over six
months by the UN and Dutch diplomats, an international donor conference will
aim to raise the required $80m to offload the light crude oil. The plan is the
brainchild of the UN resident coordinator and humanitarian coordinator for
Yemen, David Gressly, who claims it has the support of the Saudi-backed and
A memorandum of understanding was signed by the Houthis on 5
March that allows the UN to transfer about 1.1m barrels of oil from the vessel,
which is stranded 8km off Ras Isa port on Yemen’s Houthi-held west coast. The
oil would be transferred to a secure vessel which would remain in place. A new
tanker would be purchased for the Houthis within 18 months to replace Safer,
thus providing them with the insurance that they would be able to operate a
profitable oil export industry when the civil war ends. The Safer vessel would be
towed and sold for scrap. The Houthis would have no legal or commercial
Gressly said the crisis was urgent since “in March, a UN-led
mission to the Ras Isa peninsula confirmed that the 45-year-old supertanker is
rapidly decaying. It is at imminent risk of spilling a massive amount of oil
due to leakages or an explosion”. Inert air on the ship that normally inhibits
an explosion has dissipated, the UN said.
Doug Weir at the Conflict and Environment Observatory said:
“While some may question the $80m price tag of the UN-mediated plan to address
the threat posed by the FSO Safer, the costs of inaction – which start at $20bn
for managing the consequences of a catastrophic spill – are far, far greater.
The world has watched this situation grow more dangerous with every passing
month, and it’s vital that donors provide the money that is needed to allow
this urgent plan to proceed this summer.”
Greenpeace said the UN plan 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 an excuse to fail.”
Constructed in 1976 as an oil tanker and converted a decade
later to be a floating storage facility for oil, no structural repairs have
been made to the 376-metre-long vessel since Yemen’s civil war started in 2015.
It contains 36 different oil storage facilities amounting to a capacity of more
than 3m barrels.
The unavailability of diesel fuel has meant that Safer’s
engines have not been started for several years, and the structure has been
exposed to humidity and corrosion with little or no maintenance.
A major spillage would force the closure of the ports of
Hodeidah and As Salif – which are essential for commercial imports and the
provision of life-saving humanitarian assistance. Depending on the season and
prevailing wind and currents, the environmental impact could hit Saudi Arabia,
Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia, as well as disrupt shipping through the Bab
al-Mandab Strait and the Red Sea.
The Red Sea remains highly biodiverse, with coral reefs,
coastal mangroves and many endemic species.
The donor conference comes at a time of the first nationwide
ceasefire in Yemen in six years and a Saudi-overseen change in the leadership
of the Aden government. A new seven-strong anti-Houthi Presidential Leadership
Council has been formed, a move that involves the long-serving and ailing
President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi relinquishing his executive powers.