If the FSO Safer, a 40-year-old oil tanker, were to break apart today, the Red Sea would face the risk of an environmental disaster on an unprecedented scale. The tanker is more than three times the size of a football field. No maintenance has been carried out on it for years due to the civil war in Yemen. As a result, the pipes and hull are rusting and highly explosive gases can no longer be extracted. In addition to this, the tanker is surrounded by mines. And it currently has four times more oil on board than the Exxon Valdez did when it ran aground in 1989 – causing one of the world’s worst oil spills to this day.
Disastrous oil spill: A “perfect storm” on the horizon
If the tanker were to break apart, this would have far-reaching effects on the people of Yemen and the region as well as on nature in the Red Sea. The United Nations estimates that 12 million people would be directly affected by the resulting environmental and health problems. An oil leak would destroy the local ecosystem for decades to come and severely disrupt international trade via the Suez Canal.
There is a risk that any oil spill would reach the ports of Hodeidah and Saleef, as FSO Safer sits just 8 kilometres off the Yemeni coast. The two ports are indispensable for bringing food and humanitarian assistance into the country. Almost 20 million Yemenites depend on this assistance for their survival. The situation in the country is already being described as the greatest hunger crisis of our age.
Salvage mission can begin
To avert this apocalyptic scenario, the German Government worked with its international partners to set up a donor conference on 11 May, and today organised a high-level meeting on the margins of the General Debate at the United Nations in New York together with the Netherlands and the US. A special fund has been set up under the management of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The goal is as clear as it is simple: to raise a total of 113 million US dollars to prevent a disaster that could cause at least 20 billion dollars’ worth of damage – in truth, irreparable damage.
This week, a milestone was reached. Over 75 million dollars have been raised for the salvage operation. This gives the United Nations enough funding to begin the first phase of the emergency operation and pump the oil from FSO Safer onto a temporary tanker. The subsequent phase will involve transferring the oil to safe, permanent storage. A solution has been found, but almost 40 million US dollars are still needed.
Germany has therefore increased its contribution once again by 2 million euro, giving a total of 12 million and making it the second-largest donor to the operation. Deike Potzel, Director-General for Crisis Prevention, Stabilisation, Peacebuilding and Humanitarian Assistance at the Federal Foreign Office, commented today in New York:
Thanks to our sustained joint efforts, we now have the opportunity to write a story that we should tell much more often: the story of a disaster that we were able to prevent. If all parties to the conflict keep to the agreement reached on the salvage of FSO Safer and the operation is a success, the salvage of FSO Safer can become a symbol of hope for Yemen.
Major success thanks to negotiations
The progress now being made is partly thanks to lengthy negotiations with the parties to the conflict in Yemen. The salvage operation was agreed with the Houthis and the Yemeni Government in March 2022, with the United Nations mediating.
The fact that the parties to the conflict are committing to the UN-led salvage operation is a positive step, and one that must now be carried over to other areas of the conflict, such as making the ceasefire in Yemen permanent.