Charity Urges Donor Support To Avert Oil Spill Off Yemen

CAIRO (AP) — An international charity on Wednesday urged global donors to pay up on pledges to remove oil from a long-stranded and rusting supertanker off Yemen to avert an explosion or leak that could wreak environmental and economic disaster.

The call by Save the Children has come as the Netherlands, U.S. and Germany officially announced Wednesday “the successful funding of the emergency operation” to neutralize the threat from the FSO Safer oil tanker. The event, which also included the U.N. and Yemen’s internationally recognized government, took place on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.

The U.N. told The Associated Press Monday it has finally reached a pledging goal to raise money to remove 1 million barrels of oil from the tanker, but it still has to persuade all donors to pay up on pledges for the first, $75 million phase of the operation.

No specific deadline has been announced for the start of the first phase, which will be conducted by a Dutch firm, according to David Gressly, the U.N. resident, and humanitarian coordinator for Yemen.

In a news briefing at the U.N., Gressly did say he was “confident” that by the end of September "there will be more than enough resources to do the initial round of contract required to go forward” with the operation.

Save the Children urged the international community to treat the tanker as “an international emergency.” It warned that turbulent winds and currents at sea in the winter are likely to “make the oil transfer operation more dangerous and increase the risk of the ship breaking up.”

It said a break-up of the tanker would unleash “disastrous humanitarian, environmental, and economic consequences.” It said the livelihoods of Yemen’s fishing communities could be instantly wiped out if the tanker leaks or explodes.

The tanker is a Japanese-made vessel built in the 1970s and sold to the Yemeni government in the 1980s to store up to 3 million barrels of export oil pumped from fields in Marib, a province in eastern Yemen.

The Iranian-backed Houthi rebels control Yemen’s western Red Sea ports, including Ras Issa, just 6 kilometers (about 4 miles) from where the Safer is moored, and the U.N. has been negotiating with the rebel group for years to try to get experts on the tanker to examine it.

Both sides signed a memorandum of understanding in March, authorizing a four-month emergency operation to eliminate the immediate threat by transferring oil on the Safer tanker to another vessel. In the longer term, the MOU calls for replacing the Safer tanker with another vessel capable of holding a similar quantity of oil within 18 months, which will cost $38 million, according to the U.N.

The AP reported in June 2020 that the vessel's maintenance is no longer possible because the damage to the ship is irreversible, as seawater had entered the engine compartment of the tanker, causing damage to the pipelines and increasing the risk of sinking.

The aging tanker is 360 meters (1,181 feet) long with 34 storage tanks. It holds some four times the estimated amount of oil released in the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill that devastated the Alaskan coast.

Yemen’s brutal civil war started in 2014, when the Houthis seized Sanaa and much of northern Yemen and forced the government into exile. A Saudi-led coalition entered the war in early 2015 to try restore the internationally recognized government to power.

Both sides have been observing a U.N.-brokered nationwide cease-fire, which initially took effect in early April and was extended twice, the second time until early October. Both sides reported violations of the cease-fire but the truce has been the longest lull of fighting in Yemen’s war, now in its eighth year.

The U.N. and Western governments have been pressuring the two sides and their foreign backers, mainly Saudi Arabia and Iran, to extend the truce and to engage in talks to find a settlement to the conflict.

The conflict has created one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises and over the years turned into a regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. More than 150,000 people have been killed, including over 14,500 civilians.