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Funding Needed for UN’s Yemen Oil Tanker Cleanup

Moored Supertanker Threatens Humanitarian, Environmental Disaster

By Joey Shea, Acting Researcher Yemen & Bahrain 

Donor countries that pledged to fund a long-delayed salvage mission for the FSO Safer, a decaying oil supertanker moored off Yemen’s coast in the Red Sea, should immediately send the remainder of their contributions. The situation remains urgent as the tanker threatens a humanitarian and environmental catastrophe.

The Safer, a ticking time bomb holding an estimated 1.14 million barrels light crude oil (four times the amount of oil spilled from the Exxon Valdez in 1989), has been stranded and left to decay since 2015. It could explode or break apart at any moment. Thankfully, the United Nations reached an agreement with Houthi authorities in Yemen this year to facilitate a two-stage, UN-coordinated salvage plan, and a funding drive for the mission began in May.

Satellite image of the Safer supertanker off Yemen’s coast taken on June 17,  2020, one month before experts warned the UN Security Council that unless Houthi authorities let the UN secure the aging vessel, its 1.1 million barrels of crude oil could spill and wreak environmental and humanitarian havoc.  Satellite Image © 2020 Maxar Technologies/Getty Images 

Wealthy donor countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, should rapidly transfer funds to avert what could become one of the world’s worst oil spills, and devastate the population and environment in Yemen.

While governments and businesses have pledged funds for the salvage operation, they have not yet handed over the money. They should do so immediately, as the first stage of the mission cannot begin until the UN has the full US$80 million required in the bank.

Over the weekend, the Netherlands announced an additional €7.5 million ($7.5 million) to support the salvage operation. They should set an example for other governments and transfer the funds immediately.

After long negotiations with Houthi authorities for access and more time waiting for donations from donor states, it would be devastating if the Safer were to break up just as the UN is collecting its final pledges. In this nightmare scenario, at least $20 billion will be needed to address the humanitarian and environmental catastrophe.

The UN will also need additional pledges to fund the second phase of the salvage mission and donor states should be ready to step up with additional funds, not empty promises.

Donor states appear to be playing a perverse waiting game that could backfire. Rather than delivering on modest funding pledges now, they’re twiddling their thumbs and may have to hand over billions – not just millions – to clean up an unprecedented, and avoidable, disaster.

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