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UN working to avoid oil spill in Red Sea

8th Jul 2022
UN working to avoid oil spill in Red Sea

FSO Safer image taken in 1992 (Credit: Piet Sinke/Flickr)

The UN is currently scrambling to crowdfund enough money to prevent a massive oil spill in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen. An oil tanker, the FSO Safer, has been unable to receive maintenance since 2015, soon after war broke out in the country.

Despite years of warnings to UN officials, cooperation with the Ḥūthī rebels to access the ship has been difficult; agreements were made and broken. There is concern that boarding the ship for inspection and offloading the oil may not be secure, as warnings have come out that Ḥūthī rebels installed landmines on and around the tanker before being killed, so the whereabouts of the explosives are unknown. 

The ship is one of the largest oil tankers in the world, at 376 metres. Built in 1976 in Japan, it was converted in 1987 into a Floating Storage and Offloading (FSO) ship capable of holding 1.14 million barrels of oil, four times the spillage of Exxon Valdez in 1989.

Should the ship explode or break apart and the oil leak into the Red Sea, the scale of the disaster would be unprecedented. The estimated cost of cleanup is $20 billion, and the vessel is not insured. Photos show it in a decrepit condition with rusted and worn pipes. 

The UN has resorted to crowdfunding to gather $144 million for the two-part clean-up. First, the oil needs to be offloaded onto a secure vessel, estimated at $80 million, and then the FSO Safer would have to be towed in and sold for scrap. Saudi Arabia has committed $10 million, and an event at The Hague raised an estimated $33 million from The Netherlands, Qatar, and EU governments.  

The US State Department issued a press release in May urging the public and private donors to contribute to the crowdfunding campaign “to help prevent a leak, spill, or explosion, whose effects would destroy livelihoods, tourism, and commerce in one of the world’s vital shipping lanes.” In June, the department announced that it would work with Congress to provide $10 million in support of the project to mark World Ocean Day.

The ship crisis is not new. In 2019, the Atlantic Council published articles on how destructive the catastrophe could be if left unchecked, citing contamination of desalination plants, which would deprive Yeminis of desperately needed drinking water.

The think-tank also predicted disruption to the global supply chain as shipping lanes through the Red Sea would be off-limits, ecological damage that could be the tipping point for saving the world’s coral reefs, and loss of livelihood for tens of thousands of fishermen. The UN humanitarian affairs chief claims to have brought it to the attention of the UN Security Council 15 times in the last 15 months. The disaster could incite worse conflict in a region already gripped by war and a humanitarian crisis. 

The UN is in a race against time to begin the four-month operation before the harsh winter weather arrives, which would make a breakup or explosion of the tanker likely imminent. 

The Ḥūthīs have viewed the tanker, full of previously drilled oil, as a source of funds and a bargaining chip in negotiations, which would leave them with no liability. On June 14, the UN announced that the truce negotiated in Yemen would be extended for another two months. It praised the improved humanitarian conditions and reduced civilian casualties while admitting that other issues required focus, including the Safer vessel. 

The UN’s resident coordinator for Yemen, David Gressly, admitted, “It is far easier to raise funds to respond to a catastrophe than to prevent a catastrophe,” adding that each day of delay brings the ship closer to disaster. He described the vessel’s breakup as a “certainty.” 

International leaders have been largely focused on the war in Ukraine, securing supply chains after the pandemic wreaked havoc, and addressing rising oil prices and inflation.

The funds necessary to prevent a catastrophic oil spill in a politically fraught region are not at the top of policymakers’ agendas. However, due to the predictable nature of the crisis, there could be a severe political backlash if policymakers fail to act, and global shipping is further disrupted. 

Sarah Sakeena Marshall,

 American University’s School of Intl Service, 

The Muslim News Environmental Columnist

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