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An Oil Tanker Grounded Off Yemen Faces a Potential Humanitarian Disaster

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

UNITED NATIONS, Jan 11 2023 (IPS) - The long-delayed salvaging of an abandoned tanker, the FSO Safer off the Yemeni coast, has been described as a humanitarian disaster waiting to happen.

The rusting vessel, according to the UN, has remained anchored for more than 30 years. But off-loading and maintenance of the vessel ceased back in 2015, following the start of a devastating civil war in Yemen.

Greenpeace International Project lead Paul Horsman told IPS: “We are staring a major disaster in the face.”

It is unacceptable, he argued, that UNDP, the UN body in charge of facilitating the Safer salvage operations, is creating delays through their internal bureaucracy, potentially adding massive increase in costs, jeopardising an agreement that took years of negotiations to reach, and putting at risk people of Yemen and the Red Sea.

For over a year, everyone has been warning of the imminent danger presented by the Safer. The solution is clear, the technology and expertise are available, ready and able, and the money is there, he added.

“If the Safer leaks or, worse, explodes, it is the UNDP that will carry the blame. They should just get out of the way and allow those who do know what they are doing to get on with the job,” declared Horsman.

Asked for a response, Russell Geekie, Senior Communications Advisor to the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, told IPS under the leadership of the UN Resident Coordinator, UNDP has been working with other UN specialized agencies and partners to urgently implement the UN-coordinated plan to prevent a massive oil spill from the FSO Safer, off Yemen’s Red Sea coast.

The salvage operation, he said, will take place within the context of the crisis in Yemen, which greatly complicates the work to prepare and implement the operation.

“The salvage operation can only begin once a suitable vessel is in place to receive the oil from the FSO Safer”.

At present, he said, the main challenge to the start of the operation is the limited availability of suitable vessels to store the oil. The price in the global market for these vessels has sharply increased – largely as a result of the war in Ukraine.

“UNDP is working with a maritime broker and other partners to find the most suitable solution, fast-tracking processes whenever possible”, he added.

At a UN press briefing last September, David Gressly, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, said the long-delayed salvage operations can begin, now that more than $75 million had been pledged to carry out the vital operation.

The briefing, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. was co-hosted by partners in the proposed rescue effort, namely, the Netherlands, the United States, and Germany.

Gressly said that once the pledges are fully converted into cash for the initial salvage operation, with more than $77 million promised from 17 countries, an extra $38 million was still needed for phase two – the installation of safe replacement capacity to secure the one million barrels of oil on board.

The UN plan is for this to be done through transferring the oil to a secure double-hulled vessel, as a permanent storage solution, until the political situation allows it to be sold or transported elsewhere, said Gressly.

But Greenpeace International has remained sceptical because the issue of the FSO Safer, it says, should have been dealt with months ago, before weather conditions deteriorated.

Last autumn, all seemed set fair for the salvage operation, and Smit Boskalis, one of the world’s most experienced salvage companies, was all set to get the operation underway, Greenpeace said.

“But this momentum appears to have now ground to a halt as the UNDP, who are supposed to be coordinating the operation, are creating serious and more expensive delays through their internal bureaucratic processes”.

Greenpeace said it has been campaigning for over two years to get the UN to deal with the FSO Safer and avoid a devastating oil spill in the area.

“We understand the UN FINALLY has the money, but UNDP (who are supposed to be coordinating the multi-donor effort but have no expertise in the oil/shipping issue) are going through internal bureaucratic processes which are creating serious delays and more expense due to daily inflating costs,” Greenpeace said.

According to the UN, fears have grown that unless the vessel is secured, it could break apart causing a devastating oil spill and other environmental damage, which the UN estimates would cost at least $20 billion just to clear up, as well as devastate the fragile economy of war-torn Yemen – triggering a humanitarian catastrophe.

Geekie said donors have generously deposited $73.4 million for the project, with another $10 million pledged. While preparatory work has begun, additional funds are still needed to fully implement the operation, which has the support of both the Government of Yemen in Aden and the Sana’a authorities.

Ensuring that the right team of experts is in place is critical to the operation’s success.

He said UNDP has already procured all the services of relevant experts and operational partners including a top-rated marine management consultancy company, a salvage operation company, a shipbroker, a maritime legal firm, an insurance broker company and oil spill experts for contingency planning to support this crucial mission.

Other UN agencies are also providing technical support to the operation.

Given the high potential environmental and humanitarian risks, the United Nations, including UNDP, is sparing no effort to address the challenges faced off the coast of Yemen and is dealing with this situation with the utmost urgency, he declared.

IPS UN Bureau Report


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