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Concern amid UN moves to prevent catastrophic oil spill from stricken Yemeni tanker

Fears have continued to mount over the state of a decaying oil tanker moored off the Yemeni coast that is at risk of breaking up and causing an environmental disaster.

FSO Safer
The FSO Safer tanker

The United Nations is seeking the public to contribute money through a crowdfunding campaign to be able to commence an emergency operation towards the end of September 2022.

“The FSO Safer vessel is holding four times the amount of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez – enough to make it the 5th largest oil spill from a tanker in history. If we do not act now, the result will be an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe centered on the coast of a country already devasted by seven years of war,” said the UN.

The “FSO Safer”, an aging supertanker, holds over 1 million barrels of oil and experts warn it could break up or explode at any time, causing damage to habitats and livelihoods along the Red Sea coast that would cost an estimated $20 billion to put it right.

“A massive spill from the Safer would destroy pristine reefs, coastal mangroves and other sea life across the Red Sea, expose millions of people to highly polluted air, and cut off food, fuel and other life-saving supplies to Yemen, where 17 million people already need food aid.

“Coastal communities would be hit hardest. Hundreds of thousands of jobs in the fishing industry would be lost almost overnight. It would take 25 years for fish stocks to recover. The cost of cleanup alone would be $20 billion,” added the UN.

The UN, which on June 13, 2022, launched a crowdfunding drive to finance an operation to remove the crude oil from the supertanker, has said that it will soon raise enough money to mount a rescue operation.

As of early September, some $68 million had been pledged to the rescue operation – $12 million short of the UN’s $80 million target.

FSO Safer
Satellite image of the FSO Safer tanker moored off the Yemen coast, on June 17, 2020. Photo credit: Maxar / Digital Globe / Getty Images

The UN has said it is “looking closely at how to reduce costs of both the emergency operation and installation of long-term replacement capacity for the ‘Safer’.”

A spokesperson for the UN said: “We are confident that we will receive the target amount soon,” although they added “We still need donors to disburse the funds that they have pledged.”

To date, only around $10 million of the $68 million has been handed over.

Fundraising has though picked up momentum over the year. In May, a pledging event in The Hague raised some $33 million, from a combination of nine European governments, Qatar, and the European Union. The following month, Saudi Arabia said it would give $10 million.

On a smaller scale, a public crowdfunding campaign launched in June has raised some $145,000 from about 2,000 individuals.

Some private companies have also begun to step in to offer financial help. HSA Group, Yemen’s largest private company, announced on August 25 a $1.2 million donation to support the UN’s emergency FSO Safer appeal, becoming the first private sector organisation to donate to the appeal.

“Given that there remains a large funding shortfall, and time is running out, HSA believes that the private sector must step forward,” said HSA managing director, Nabil Hayel Saeed Anam. “We hope that this first donation from the private sector may serve to encourage other companies across the world to contribute.”

Yet, that hasn’t happened, although the UN spokesperson said: “Other private entities have indeed shown interest in contributing.”

Efforts to secure the Safer’s cargo have been on the drawing board for years, but the Houthi rebel group which controls the area the vessel is moored in have blocked access to the site. With a truce now in place between the Houthis and the Yemeni government and its Saudi-led coalition partners, there is now some hope that the impasse can be broken.

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