Preparatory work for the transfer of a million barrels of oil from a decaying floating supertanker onto a rescue vessel off the coast of Yemen in the Red Sea has begun, the United Nations said.
The transfer should be completed by early August, allaying fears of a potentially catastrophic oil spill.
“The replacement vessel Nautica is preparing to sail from Djibouti,” David Gressly, U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, said in his briefing to the Security Council. “It will moor alongside the Safer and should begin taking on the oil by early next week.”
The Nautica underwent some modifications in China before sailing to the region.
Gressly said the transfer should take about two weeks.
“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,” he said. “The worst-case humanitarian, environmental and economic catastrophe from a massive oil spill will have been prevented.”
The U.N. has warned for several years that the 47-year-old Safer supertanker is a ticking time bomb that could leak, sink or explode, unleashing a massive ecological and humanitarian catastrophe. The environmental damage and economic fallout would affect countries around the Red Sea region and cost about $20 billion to clean up, in addition to disrupting international shipping through the Bab al-Mandab Strait to the Suez Canal. The tanker has had no maintenance since 2015, when it was largely abandoned because of Yemen’s civil war.
The government of Yemen, backed by Saudi Arabia, has been locked in a war with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels for more than eight years. The Houthis control the port near where the Safer is anchored and delayed U.N. efforts to send a team to assess the tanker’s condition in the lead-up to the operation.
“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,” Gressly said of the Houthis, adding that he is satisfied with their cooperation on the operation.
Funding has also caused delays.
Gressly, who has worked closely with the U.N. Development Program to organize the technical and logistical details of the complex operation, said it is expected to cost $143 million. The U.N. has raised $118 million from governments and $300,000 through a public crowdfunding campaign. An additional $25 million is needed, including $20 million to repay a loan to a U.N. emergency fund.
Once the oil is successfully transferred, the Safer will be towed, environmentally cleaned, and taken to a green scrap yard for recycling.