UN ship arrives for anti-oil operation in Yemen

FSO safe supertanker leaving the port of Hodeidah, Yemen on July 15, 2023 (Mohammed Huwais)

FSO safe supertanker leaving the port of Hodeidah, Yemen on July 15, 2023 (Mohammed Huwais)

A UN ship arrived in Yemeni waters on Sunday to allow a complex transfer of oil currently stored in a dilapidated supertanker to avoid a huge oil spill in the Red Sea after years of war in Yemen.

After intense diplomatic talks and millions of dollars raised, the Nautica, a ship bought by the United Nations in March, set sail from the coast of Djibouti on the other side of the Red Sea on Saturday, and is due to approach the beach on Sunday. FSO Safer, a 47 year old oil tanker with more than one million barrels.

But the western port city of Hodeida remains at risk of disaster due to extreme temperatures and the presence of sea mines in the region, which has been the subject of bloody fighting.

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) representative on the issue, Mohamed Mudavi, insisted, “The risks are too high.”

“But we hope that once this operation is over, this risk will be over,” he added. Work should last about three weeks.

David Gresley, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, announced during a meeting of the Security Council this week that experts have concluded that “the transfer of oil can take place with an acceptable level of risk”.

“We are quite confident,” he later confirmed to AFP aboard the Nautica. “We think…the transfer will happen.”

Around Sefer, dolphins leap out of the water and cormorants have taken up residence on the hull of the wrecked ship, providing shelter to fauna and flora in the area that may have been destroyed by the oil spill.

– “very hot” –

Sefer has been moored since the 1980s about fifty kilometers from the strategic port of Hodeidah and nine kilometers from the nearest coast.

Its maintenance was interrupted in 2015 by a war between the Houthis movement, backed by Iran, and government forces backed by a Saudi Arabian-led military coalition.

The ship, which was at risk of exploding at any moment, is carrying four times more oil than the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, one of the world’s worst ecological disasters.

In the event of an oil spill, which could affect Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia, the cost of cleanup alone has been estimated by the United Nations at $20 billion (17.8 billion euros).

If ship conditions allow for the planned operation, it will begin when summer temperatures in the Arabian Peninsula reach around 50 degrees Celsius.

“It gets very hot very quickly,” said Nick Quinn, an expert involved in the operation.

These extreme temperatures increase the risk of “slipping, tripping and falling” for workers wearing heavy protective equipment.

– “Correct the problem” –

This is exactly the kind of nightmare the Houthis have been accused of fostering by initially denying requests for UN access to inspect Safer.

The Houthis not only took control of the capital Sanaa, but also captured entire regions, especially Hodeida, during the war.

He blamed Saudi Arabia for this and said that its air and sea blockade on Yemen had deprived the ship of necessary maintenance.

Condemned by NGOs, the blockade has been defended by Riyadh, which it says seeks to limit the delivery of military equipment to the Houthis.

Nautica, which would be renamed Yemen, would remain in the region with the oil. The question of ownership of this black gold will then arise as rivalry between the Houthis and the government continues to escalate, although violence on the ground has largely subsided.

Similarly, the “problem” of maintaining the new ship would fall victim to these rivalries, said Idris al-Shami, the boss of the Houthis-appointed Yemeni Oil and Gas Company in Sanaa.

“So we’re moving the problem from the old, old ship to the new ship.”


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