People in a small boat approach the FSO Safer oil tanker

People in a small boat approach the beleaguered FSO Safer oil tanker in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen on July 15, 2023.

(Photo: Mohammed Huwais/AFP via Getty Images)

UN Launches High-Stakes Effort to Prevent Catastrophic Oil Spill From Tanker Near Yemen

U.N. chief António Guterres called the initiative to transfer oil from the decaying FSO Safer to another tanker "the critical next step in avoiding an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe on a colossal scale."

"The United Nations has begun an operation to defuse what might be the world's largest ticking time bomb," U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres announced Tuesday.

"A complex maritime salvage effort is now underway in the Red Sea off the coast of war-torn Yemen to transfer one million barrels of oil from the decaying FSO Safer to a replacement vessel," said Guterres.

If all goes as planned, the oil will be pumped from the abandoned supertanker to the Nautica over the next three weeks, UN Newsreported.

"In the absence of anyone else willing or able to perform this task, the United Nations stepped up and assumed the risk to conduct this very delicate operation," Guterres explained. "This is an all-hands-on-deck mission and the culmination of nearly two years of political groundwork, fundraising, and project development."

The U.N. chief called the oil transfer initiative "the critical next step in avoiding an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe on a colossal scale."

"Without action," he warned, "the vessel could have exploded or broken apart, spilling as much as four times the oil released in the Exxon Valdez disaster. Fishing communities would be wiped out. Hundreds of thousands of jobs would instantly disappear. Whole communities would be exposed to deadly toxins."

Moreover, "major ports including Hodeidah and Saleef would be forced to close indefinitely. Food, fuel, and life-saving supplies for millions would halt," Guterres continued. "Water, coral reefs, [and] sea life would be utterly devastated. Shipping all the way to the Suez Canal could be disrupted for weeks. The potential clean-up bill alone could easily run into the tens of billions of dollars."

"That is why we have been raising the alarm and working to mobilize support to avoid this nightmare," he added.

Peer-reviewed research published in October 2021 warned that an "increasingly likely" oil spill from the slowly corroding Safer into the Red Sea could cut off access to clean water and food aid for millions of people in a matter of days and completely decimate the region's fishing stocks within three weeks.

The 47-year-old supertankerhas been moored roughly five nautical miles southwest of the Ras Issa peninsula on Yemen's west coast for more than 30 years. Maintenance of the vessel ground to a halt in 2015 amid the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition's ongoing war on Yemen. As a result, it has deteriorated to a state beyond repair.

Despite several warnings about the life-threatening dangers posed by the decaying ship—including one made in June 2020 by the head of the U.N. Environment Program to the U.N. Security Council—it has taken years to finalize a plan to remove the 1.1 million barrels of crude it is holding.

According to Guterres, "The United Nations enlisted the best in the business: a team of world-leading experts in maritime law, oil spills, salvage operations, marine engineers, naval architects, insurance brokers and underwriters, chemists, surveyors, and more."

"This operation required relentless political work in a country devastated by eight years of war," Guterres noted. "It depended on generous financial support."

"The ship-to-ship transfer of oil is an important milestone, but it is far from the end of the journey," the U.N. chief continued. "The next critical step is arrangement for the delivery of a specialized buoy to which the replacement vessel will be safely and securely tethered."

"Looking immediately ahead, we will need about $20 million to finish the project, which includes cleaning and scrapping the FSO Safer and removing any remaining environmental threat to the Red Sea," he added. "I urge donors to act at this crucial time."

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