The United Nations says enough money has been pledged to begin salvaging a derelict oil tanker in Yemen
NEW YORK CITY — The United Nations has received sufficient funding commitments to begin phase one of the salvage operation on the derelict Safer oil tanker, David Gressly, the organization’s resident and humanitarian coordinator in Yemen, announced Wednesday.
The ship, which contains more than 1.14 million barrels of oil, has been in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen for more than seven years. It has had little or no maintenance during that time, and its condition has deteriorated to the point where fears of a catastrophic oil spill are growing.
The planned salvage for security is divided into two phases: transfer of the oil from the tanker to another ship, followed by a permanent storage solution until the political situation in Yemen allows for sale or transport elsewhere.
At a briefing on the sidelines of the 77th session of the UN General Assembly, Gressly said 17 countries helped raise the $75 million needed for the first phase of the operation, including $10 million from Saudi Arabia, in addition to private sector contributions, public foundations and a crowdfunding campaign organized by the UN. A second donation of US$7 million from the Netherlands ensured the goal was met.
Donors have to deliver on their pledges by delivering the money, but Gressly told Arab News he’s confident the money will be in hand by the end of this month “because it’s already happening”.
He added that he feels a “high will” that he doesn’t usually see to address this issue because the cost of failure is so high. If the oil spills into the Red Sea, the cleanup could cost around $30 billion. Such an environmental disaster would not only hit Yemen but also neighboring countries including Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia and Saudi Arabia. In addition, fisheries would be damaged and shipping disrupted.
“While most of the money has not yet been received, most of the agreements have now been signed, which is a prerequisite for the actual funds to be transferred,” Gressly told Arab News.
“So I am quite confident that by the end of this month, September, there will be more than enough resources to complete the first round of contracts required to move forward. We have very tough commitments from those who haven’t signed contracts for it yet.”
Tim Lenderking, the US special envoy for Yemen, said during the briefing that this positive development was the result of a concerted effort by many countries, including those in close proximity to the tanker, the private sector and ordinary citizens who have responded to a GoFundMe campaign organized by the UN. He added that this was in the “context of the Yemen ceasefire.”
“The conflict in Yemen has made progress; a lot of hard work between the UN, the US, the Saudi-led coalition, the Yemeni government (and) the Houthis who agreed to the ceasefire and largely abided by it,” Lenderking said.
If we reflect on the benefits of the existing ceasefire for the people of Yemen — civilian casualties have fallen by 60 percent, four times more fuel is now entering Yemen’s ports, and more than 21,000 people have been “detained in the country” since 2016. were able to travel internationally after commercial flights resumed from Sana’a Airport – Lenderking told Arab News that he believes the door is open for a “permanent ceasefire” to be agreed in the coming months.
He described the Houthi cooperation, which helped achieve the ceasefire on April 2, then extend it in June and again in August, as “a very positive step.”
The latest extension expires in 10 days and Lenderking said all parties interested in peace in Yemen are studying the way forward to reach a lasting political settlement.
“We are seeing strong signals from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, from the United Arab Emirates and from the Sultanate of Oman,” he said. “And again, within the (five permanent members of the UN Security Council) there is a convergence of views that there is no military solution to the Yemen conflict, that there must be a process to reach a political settlement.
“I can say that there is genuine consensus in the international community that the ceasefire will be expanded and the benefits accruing to Yemenis from the ceasefire will be further developed.”
Lenderking said the US “would like to see more oil entering the market through the Port of Hodeidah and being used to power food mills, hospitals, schools and the transportation network.”
He said even the Iranian authorities that support the Houthis welcomed the ceasefire “both in April and in June.” But he added that “we need Iranian behavior to match these positive responses to the ceasefire,” urging the Tehran regime to stop arming and training the Houthis.
The Houthis control the ports of Yemen’s western Red Sea, including Ras Issa, where the Safer is anchored. The UN had been negotiating with the rebel group for years to get permission for experts to inspect the tanker. Both sides signed a memorandum of understanding in March authorizing a four-month emergency operation to eliminate the immediate threat by transferring the oil on the tanker to another ship.
“We are very keen to put an end to this potential catastrophe,” Yemeni Foreign Minister Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak told Arab News on Wednesday at an event hosted by the Dutch consulate general in New York.
“We support all UN initiatives… Yemen cannot afford such a catastrophe. It would cost Yemen more than $21 billion directly. Not only would it damage the Red Sea, but the effects would be detrimental to the planet.”
Longer term, the MOU envisages replacing the Safer with a vessel that can safely hold a similar amount of oil within 18 months.
“We are relying on the United Nations and the international community to ensure this plan is implemented and to avoid disruptions delaying the process,” Hannah Omar of the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center told Arab News.
“It is really important for us to end this disaster and ensure that the Red Sea is safer after this implementation.”
The Safer’s structure, equipment and operating systems have deteriorated over the years, leaving it at risk of leaking, exploding or catching fire. The UN has warned for years that an oil spill could be four times the size of the Exxon Valdez disaster off the coast of Alaska in 1989, which is still considered the world’s worst oil spill in terms of environmental damage.
Experts estimate that a major leak could severely damage Red Sea ecosystems, on which some 30 million people, including 1.6 million Yemenis, depend, according to the UN.
The emergency has lasted for five years, but funding commitments only began in the spring of this year.
The Netherlands’ total pledge of US$14 million was a significant contribution to the first phase’s goal.
Marc Gerristen, director for the Middle East and North Africa at the country’s foreign ministry, told Arab News that the delay in reaching the funding target was largely because it took time to convince people of the need to contribute.
“It’s obviously very complicated to raise awareness when the scale of the problem isn’t fully clear,” he said, adding that the first challenge is therefore to make sure everyone understands the scale and severity of the situation .
“The UN played a very important role in this,” he said. “So this is something that was a collective effort, spearheaded by the UN. But when it came to mobilizing resources, getting others to commit, that started about a year or two ago.
“This is where the UN was looking for a leading country, and this is where we (the Netherlands) sort of took off the gloves and happily took on that role.”