Yemen: UN starts high stakes operation to prevent catastrophic oil spill from decaying tanker
A complex maritime salvage effort started on Tuesday morning in the Red Sea off the coast of war-torn Yemen to transfer one million barrels of oil from a decaying tanker to a replacement vessel.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described the situation as possibly “the world’s largest ticking time-bomb”, as the United Nations-led mission began.
“(It is) definitely a challenging operation, both because it was technically complex, and because of the location of the vessel Safer, and obviously the political context,” said Sarah Bel, spokesperson for the UN Development Programme (UNDP), in Geneva.
“This is an all-hands-on-deck mission and the culmination of nearly two years of political groundwork, fundraising and project development" said the UN chief.
The Safer - which was abandoned over eight years ago - has been at risk of breaking up or exploding for years. According to UNDP, the oil aboard the Safer is being pumped into the replacement vessel Yemen (formerly Nautica) in a ship-to-ship transfer that is expected to take 19 days to complete.
“We know that it would devastate fishing communities in Yemen’s Red Sea coast…likely wiping out 200,000 livelihoods instantly,” said Ms. Bel. “So whole communities of the region would be exposed to life-threatening toxins.”
The UNDP spokesperson added: “The environmental impact on coral reefs, life supporting mangroves and other marine life would be severe and we estimate that fish stocks would take 25 years to recover.”
A catastrophic oilspill would likely also close the ports of Hudaydah and Saleef “which are essential to bring food, fuel and lifesaving supplies into Yemen, where 17 million people need food assistance”, Ms. Bel explained.
In addition, shipping on the Suez Canal could be disrupted for weeks and a potential clean-up bill could easily run into the tens of billions of dollars, experts have warned.
Although the ship-to-ship transfer of the Safer oil is an important milestone, it is not the end of the operation.
A critical next step is arranging for the delivery of a specialized buoy to hold the replacement vessel in place safely and securely.
“There's a long-term solution because we will need, after removing the oil, to tow and scrap the Safer and make sure that we store the oil,” explained Ms. Bel. “So, you can see this is such a complex operation…to my knowledge, this is the very first time that we deal with such a project.”
The UN will need about $20 million in funding to finish the project, which includes cleaning and scrapping the Safer and removing any remaining environmental threat to marine life.