The United Nations said on Tuesday it had started the removal of more than 1 million barrels of oil from a decaying supertanker off Yemen’s Red Sea coast in a highly complex operation it hopes will ward off a regional disaster.
U.N. officials have been warning for years that the Red Sea and Yemen’s coastline was at risk as the rusting Safer tanker could spill four times as much oil as the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off Alaska. A U.N. spokesperson said on Tuesday a spill could cost $20 billion to clean up.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the operation represented a “critical next step in avoiding an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe on a colossal scale.”
“With the U.N. in the lead the world has pulled together to avoid a nightmare scenario that has been talked about for the last eight years,” David Gressly, UN resident and humanitarian coordinator in Yemen, told journalists from the bridge of the Endeavour vessel which is overseeing the transfer.
The war in Yemen caused the suspension in 2015 of maintenance operations on the Safer, which is used for storage and has been moored off Yemen for more than 30 years.
The U.N., which has never before undertaken such a rescue mission, has warned its structural integrity has significantly deteriorated and it is at risk of exploding.
Achim Steiner, the United Nations’ Development Programme (UNDP) administrator, said he was “extremely relieved” that pumping had begun.
He said because the transfer was happening on such an old and broken vessel, preparation had taken months including provisions for standby air support to release chemicals to dissipate the oil in case of a spill.
The United States contributed $10 million for the transfer and urged other countries to chip in, the State Department said. Gressly said a total of $121 million had been received, including some money borrowed from the U.N.’s humanitarian budget, but around $22 million was still needed.
The oil transfer is expected to take 19 days to complete, UNDP said in a statement. Then the oil, which is majority owned by Yemeni state firm SEPOC, might be sold.
“We are obviously very cautious – it’s only the beginning of a transfer,” UNDP spokesperson Sarah Bel told a Geneva press briefing when asked about the operation’s risks.
“The cost of an oil spill is estimated to be approximately $20 billion, and it will take years to clean up,” she added.
She warned that any spilled oil could reach the African coast, damaging fish stocks for the next 25 years and destroying 200,000 jobs. It would also close ports that bring food and supplies to Yemen, where some 17 million people rely on humanitarian aid, she said.
Reporting by Nadine Awadalla and Nayera Abdallah in Dubai and Emma Farge in Geneva; Writing by Clauda Tanios; Editing by Louise Heavens, Jan Harvey, Emma Rumney and Jonathan Oatis