Donor governments on Wednesday pledged $38 million towards a mission to stop a rusting oil tanker from releasing a potentially catastrophic amount of oil off the coast of war-torn Yemen — only about a quarter of what the UN was seeking.
UN officials said they had received the money towards their $144m appeal to unload, remove and replace the FSO Safer, a creaking hulk moored off the Yemeni port of Hodeidah that is carrying 1.1 million barrels of crude.
“We received around $38m in funding to address the Red Sea's ticking time bomb,” the UN Development Programme said on social media.
“We are so thankful to our donors and are hopeful for additional funding in the coming days that will allow us to begin urgent action.”
UN spokesman Farhan Haq said the pledges were a “strong start to the push” that would help the first phase of the operation, but that “we will need more money” in the coming months.
The UN says the vessel could rupture and spill its load at any moment, causing a disaster four times worse than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill near Alaska that would cost a colossal $20 billion to clean up.
Earlier in the meeting, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres urged donors to “provide full funding so that work can start immediately”.
A spill would release “more than one million barrels of oil into the Red Sea, devastating the coast, destroying livelihoods, depleting fisheries and potentially disrupting traffic through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal”, he said in a video message.
It would hurt tourism, fishing and desalination plants across Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea and Djibouti, and impede a shipping lane that carries about 10 per cent of global trade.
The UN also released a video explaining how the tanker would be emptied, removed and replaced under a plan agreed with the Houthi rebel group that controls the coast and nearby waters.
The pledging meeting, co-hosted by the UN and the Netherlands, came more than two months after the world body and the Houthis signed a deal to transfer the crude to another vessel and give the rebels a replacement.
The Houthis on Tuesday used social media to criticise the UN for “not presenting an operational plan” to maintain the tanker. It remains unclear whether this statement affected the fund-raising effort.
Yemen has been mired in civil war since 2014, when the Houthis took control of the capital and much of the north, forcing the government to flee to the south, then to Saudi Arabia. A Saudi-led coalition entered the war in March 2015 to restore the government.
A truce between rebel, pro-government and coalition forces announced in April has raised hopes of a lasting peace that could help resolve the FSO Safer issue and stop a humanitarian crisis that is causing millions to go hungry.