The United Nations has announced that the preparatory work for the crucial transfer of one million barrels of oil from a deteriorating floating supertanker to a rescue vessel off the coast of Yemen in the Red Sea has commenced. This operation aims to mitigate the risks of a potential catastrophic oil spill.
During his briefing to the Security Council, David Gressly, the U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, stated, “The replacement vessel Nautica is preparing to sail from Djibouti. It will moor alongside the Safer and should begin taking on the oil by early next week.” The Nautica underwent necessary modifications in China before proceeding to the region.
Gressly further explained that the transfer process is estimated to take approximately two weeks, with the aim of completing it by early August. He emphasized the significance of this accomplishment, stating, “The completion of the ship-to-ship transfer of the oil by the start of August will be a moment when the whole world can heave a sigh of relief. The worst-case humanitarian, environmental, and economic catastrophe from a massive oil spill will have been prevented.”
For years, the United Nations has been issuing warnings about the Safer supertanker, which is 47 years old and poses a significant threat of leakage, sinking, or explosion. Such an event would trigger an immense ecological and humanitarian disaster, impacting countries across the Red Sea region.
The cleanup efforts alone would cost approximately $20 billion, in addition to disrupting international shipping through the Bab al-Mandab Strait to the Suez Canal. Due to the civil war in Yemen, the tanker has received no maintenance since 2015 and was largely abandoned.
The operation to address this critical situation faced numerous challenges, including delays caused by the ongoing conflict between the Yemeni government (supported by Saudi Arabia) and the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. The Houthis control the port where the Safer is anchored and hindered the U.N.’s initial attempts to assess the tanker’s condition.
Gressly expressed his satisfaction with the cooperation received from the Sana’a authorities, specifically the Houthis, stating, “I am pleased to report to the council that the Sana’a authorities provided authorization today for the oil transfer from the FSO Safer to the replacement vessel.”
He also acknowledged the financial aspect of the operation, explaining that the estimated cost is $143 million. So far, the U.N. has secured $118 million from governments and an additional $300,000 through a public crowdfunding campaign. An additional $25 million is required, including $20 million to repay a loan from a U.N. emergency fund.
Once the oil transfer is successfully completed, the Safer will be towed, undergo environmental cleaning, and be taken to a green scrap yard for recycling, ensuring the safe disposal of the vessel.