NEW YORK – Critical funding and timely action are needed to prevent a decaying oil tanker anchored near the coast of Yemen from causing a major oil spill, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for the country said in New York on Friday.
David Gressly outlined plans to deal with the threat posed by the FSO Safer, described as a ticking time bomb off Yemen’s Red Sea coast.
The 45-year-old floating storage and offloading (FSO) facility holds 1.1 million barrels of oil, four times the amount of the Exxon Valdez – the tanker that caused one of the world’s biggest environmental disasters of United States history.
It is at imminent risk of a massive oil spill due to leaks or an explosion.
“If that were to happen, the spill would trigger a massive ecological and humanitarian disaster centered on a country already decimated by more than seven years of war,” Gressly said.
Large-scale potential devastation
The FSO Safer has been moored some 4.8 nautical miles southwest of the Ras Issa peninsula on the west coast of Yemen for more than 30 years.
Production, offloading and maintenance ceased in 2015 due to conflict between a Saudi-led pro-government coalition and Houthi rebels, and the vessel is now beyond repair.
Gressly warned that a major spill would have devastating consequences for Yemen and beyond.
Some 200,000 livelihoods in this country already ravaged by war and crisis could be instantly wiped out and families exposed to life-threatening toxins.
Environmental and economic impact
“A major oil spill would likely, at least temporarily, close the ports of Hodeidah and Saleef,” he added, referring to critical entry points for food, fuel and supplies.
The disaster would have a severe environmental impact on vital water, reefs and mangroves. Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia are also at risk. The cleanup alone would cost $20 billion.
“This does not count the cost of environmental damage across the Red Sea. Or the billions that could be lost due to disruptions to navigation in the Bab Al-Mandab Strait, which is also a passage to the Suez Canal” , Gressly told reporters.
“Think forever,” he said, referring to the huge container ship that ran aground in the Suez Canal a year ago, disrupting world trade.
A “safer” plan
A UN-coordinated plan aims to deal with the threat, with an overall cost of around $80 million.
Yemen’s warring parties, which last week implemented a two-month ceasefire, have shown support, as have senior UN leaders and some Security Council countries.
The plan has received support from the Yemeni government, based in Aden, while a memorandum of understanding has been signed with the de facto authorities in the capital, Sanaa, who control the area where the FSO Safer is located.
The plan covers two tracks, which will operate simultaneously. It provides for the installation of a long-term replacement for the decrepit tanker within 18 months and an emergency operation to transfer the oil to a safe temporary vessel for four months, eliminating any immediate threat.
The FSO Safer and temporary vessel would remain in place until all oil was transferred to the permanent replacement vessel. The FSO Safer would then be towed to a yard and sold for salvage.
“The timing is tight”
To raise funds, a donors’ conference in May, co-hosted by the Netherlands, is expected to be announced shortly. Gressly will travel to Gulf capitals next week to discuss the plan and mobilize financial support.
He underscored the urgent need for funding, stressing that without it the “ticking time bomb” will continue to tick.
“My particular concern is really that we need to complete this operation by the end of September to avoid the turbulent winds that start in the later part of the year…increasing the risk of rupture, and also increasing the risk of carrying out any operation” , he said. “So the timing is tight.” — UN News