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UN makes ‘major breakthrough’ to avoid Yemen oil spill disaster

The United Nations has bought a ship to remove oil and avoid a potentially catastrophic spill from a tanker decaying for years off the coast of war-ravaged Yemen, officials said.

In an unusual step for a UN agency on Thursday, the UN Development Programme [UNDP] said it signed a contract to purchase a crude carrier from major tanker company Euronav that will head to Yemen to remove the oil from the beleaguered FSO Safer.

UNDP chief Achim Steiner called the deal a “major breakthrough.”

The effort will “avoid the risk of an environmental and humanitarian disaster on a massive scale,” he told reporters at the UN headquarters.

Steiner said the vessel would sail within the next month after routine maintenance under way in China.

“We hope, if all things go according to plan, that the operation of the ship-to-ship transfer would actually commence in early May,” he said.

The 47-year-old ship has not been serviced since Yemen’s devastating civil war broke out in 2015 and was left abandoned off the rebel-held port of Hudaida, a critical gateway for shipments into the country heavily dependent on emergency foreign aid.

UN officials have voiced fears that the ship would crumble, unleashing an oil spill that would severely impair foreign aid and cost some $20 billion to clean up.

The Safer contains 1.1 million barrels of oil — four times as much as that spilled in the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, one of the world’s worst ecological catastrophes, according to the UN.

An ecological disaster could also clog the Bab al Mandab strait between Africa and the Arabian peninsula, taking a major toll on the global economy by holding up the Suez Canal.

Yemen has been wracked by a devastating war since 2014 that has set off one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

Cleaning up ‘imminent’ Yemen oil spill will cost $20B

‘We had no choice’

The United Nations had been searching for years for a solution and appealed for a ship donation or a lease.

It finally decided to buy the ship, described as the only one available on the market, after failing to find another option, with prices in the shipping industry spiking in the past year due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“We had no choice, frankly, but to buy a vessel,” David Gressly, who coordinates UN humanitarian relief in Yemen, said by video-link from Aden.

“The fact that we have gotten to this step is already bringing a sense of relief here in Yemen,” he said.

The salvage operation is estimated to cost $129 million, of which $75 million has been received and another $20 million has been pledged, according to the United Nations.

Steiner warned that the United Nations could still suspend the operation if it does not find the remaining funds.

The United States, which has contributed $10 million, welcomed the UN announcement and called on other nations as well as private donors to fill the funding gap.

UN seeks international support to prevent ‘imminent’ Yemen oil spill

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