The United Nations warned Friday that an old, neglected oil tanker carrying more than a million barrels of oil is a ticking "time bomb" at "imminent risk" of a major spill off the coast of Yemen that could cost $20 billion to clean up.
"If it were to happen, the spill would unleash a massive ecological and humanitarian catastrophe centered on a country already decimated by more than seven years of war," U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen David Gressly told reporters. "The environmental damage could affect states across the Red Sea. The economic impact of disrupted shipping would be felt across the region."
The FSO Safer is one more casualty in the war between the Saudi-backed government of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and Iranian-supported Houthi rebels.
U.N. officials have been seeking access to the vessel for more than three years to assess its safety, do light repairs and eventually tow it to a safe port to remove the oil. But Houthi rebels controlling the area have repeatedly reneged on promises to allow that to happen.
The tanker has had no maintenance since 2015 because of the war and only a skeleton crew is aboard the vessel. Gressly says the vessel is now beyond repair.
"In March, a U.N.-led mission to the Ras Isa peninsula, near to where the Safer is anchored, confirmed that the 45-year-old supertanker is rapidly decaying," Gressly said. "It is at imminent risk of spilling a massive amount of oil due to leakages or an explosion."
The ensuing environmental and ecological catastrophe would devastate Yemen's fishing industry, fill the air with toxins and could also impact neighboring Saudi Arabia and the Horn of Africa.
Gressly said the U.N. has a plan to address the threat posed by the tanker, which the government of Yemen supports. Houthi rebels signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.N. last month establishing a framework for cooperation.
The U.N. plans to get a replacement vessel to offload the 1.1 million barrels of oil contained in the Safer – that is four times more oil than the Exxon Valdez carried when it caused a catastrophic spill in Alaska in 1989. After all the oil is transferred to the temporary vessel, the Safer would be towed to a shipyard and sold for recycling.
But the U.N. faces two significant obstacles: a lack of funding and time.
Gressly said the entire mission would cost about $80 million.
"This includes the salvage operation, the lease of a very large crude carrier to hold the oil and crew, and maintenance for 18 months," he said.
That would be dramatically less than the $20 billion that could be needed to clean up a spill, but difficult to raise in a donor-fatigued environment.
The Netherlands, which has been very active on the Safer situation, is planning to co-host a conference in May to raise funds to complete the mission. Gressly is also embarking on a tour of Gulf countries to encourage them to step up to mitigate a potential catastrophe on their doorstep.
The work needs to get under way by mid-May so it can be completed by the end of September, when the regional weather patterns shift and the sea will become rougher and winds will increase. Such conditions multiply the risk of the ship breaking apart, Gressly said.
If they cannot start on time, Gressly warned that could mean delaying for several months, "leaving the time bomb ticking."