Inaction on 'FSO Safer' worse than potential benefit to Houthis from salvage plan, UN says

UN co-ordinator 'hopeful' that some donors will join efforts to fund the proposal

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The risks of not taking action to avert the environmental disaster posed by the FSO Safer tanker off the coast of Yemen “far outweigh” any potential benefits to the Houthis from the plan announced in March, said UN humanitarian co-ordinator David Gressly on Thursday.

Some donor states had concerns regarding the UN plan to take the Safer off Yemen's waters and replace it with a temporary and then more permanent vessel, Mr Gressley said.

“My counter argument is that not doing something is worse than doing something that'll marginally benefit Sanaa [Houthis],” he told The National by phone from the sidelines of the 77th UN General Assembly (UNGA) in New York.

“The bottom line is that in the end the danger of doing nothing far outweighed any other considerations that they had and, like the government of Yemen, they came on board.”

Mr Gressly also said he was “hopeful” that some donors will join the efforts to fund the plan.

The UN had announced that pledges have been made to secure the $75 million emergency operation, which entails replacing the Safer with a temporary vessel and offloading the 1.1 million barrels of oil that threaten millions of livelihoods in and around Yemen.

Scrapping the Safer

Up to now, there is not a solid plan in place for what to do with the oil on board the Safer, or the proceeds from its sale.

But, Mr Gressly says, there is now a clearer understanding on what happens to the vessel once it has been offloaded and cleaned.

“There seems to be no objection to scrapping the vessel and selling it. We estimate at least $20 million net on the sale, perhaps larger.”

“That money is going to be used to offset the operations budget [of the entire operation] of $113 million by at least $20 million,” he said.

Once the remaining funds have been secured for a permanent vessel to replace FSO Safer, agreements can be made on the future of the oil on board the ship, which is technically owned by the Yemeni state oil company but is now run by the Houthi militants who took over the capital Sanaa and its facilities in 2014.

Once the pledged funds are in hand, Mr Gressly said, it will be a matter of weeks before a team is sent to Sanaa and Hodeidah, where ship is moored, and the emergency operation can begin.

“It will be four months once the process begins,” he said.

The plight of FSO Safer has garnered international attention since Mr Gressly became involved. Funding for the operation has come from member states and a private firm, as well as elementary schools and individuals through crowdfunding efforts.

In his address to the General Assembly, Yemen's head of the Presidential Leadership Council Rashad Al Alimi accused the Houthis of using the FSO Safer as a "tool to exert pressure".

He called upon the international community to "ensure free navigation in international waters" in reference to the risk posed by the decaying ship if it were to spill or explode.

Updated: September 23, 2022, 3:25 AM