Sanaa / Den Haag (dpa) – The cistern looks spooky. The 350-meter-long colossus floats neglected off the coast of Yemen, rust has eaten into the reddish-brown steel.
Inside Safer: 1.1 million barrels of crude oil and thus an amount that could cover the Red Sea and its shores with black mud for hundreds of kilometers in the event of a leak or accident. With a conference on Wednesday, the United Nations tried in a race against time to prevent an impending environmental catastrophe.
The tanker has actually been in service in Yemen since the 1980s as a fixed floating storage unit (FSO). It stored oil coming through a pipeline from inland fields and then exported. But after Yemen fell in the civil war in 2015, production and exports were banned. State-owned oil company SEPOC stopped expensive maintenance and Safer was shut down in 2016 – with 1.1 million barrels of oil on board.
The UN raises $ 33 million
Meanwhile, the 45-year-old ship and its cargo have turned into an ecological time bomb. “The risk of a massive oil spill” is imminent, warned the UN Emergency Assistance Coordinator for Yemen, David Gressly. He predicts a “massive catastrophe” for the environment and the people around a country that is struggling with the aftermath of the years of civil war.
On Wednesday, the UN, along with the Netherlands, raised money at a donors’ conference to avert the crisis. Of the $ 144 million (€ 136 million) needed for the rescue, 33 million (€ 31 million) came together. With the exception of the wealthy Gulf Emirate of Qatar, only European countries initially promised funding, including Germany and Switzerland. The search for other donors is expected to continue this month.
At the rescue, experts would first board the ship and examine the ship. The oil would then be pumped into another tank, provided by oil booms in the water. The old ship would be towed to a shipyard and sold. The Houthi rebels, who have controlled nearby ports since advancing to Yemen, initially agreed in principle to the rescue. On Tuesday, however, they also accused the UN of not yet presenting an action plan.
Time is running out. Rust and delayed maintenance can lead to oil leakage at any time, or accumulated gas can ignite in the tanks and cause an explosion and fire. It would then take about a week for the oil slick to reach the shores. The already suffering fishing, the livelihood for 1.7 million people, would be at an end at the moment, the dirty desalination plants would jeopardize the water supply. The important ports of Hudaydah and Salif would probably have to be closed for months. Even that would be devastating for the country, which imports 90 percent of its food.
Is there a new roadblock?
Environmentalists recall the oil disaster with the Exxon Valdez tanker outside Alaska in 1989. In the case of the Safer, up to four times as much oil could have been saved. The Greenpeace organization predicts a dramatic scenario for animals, plants and corals in the Red Sea. The ACAPS analysis project estimates that a fire in Safer would contaminate 500 square kilometers of farmland. The soot would cover papaya, citrus and mango fruits and jeopardize the harvest of corn, tomatoes or sweet potatoes.
Yemen could never afford clean-up after such a catastrophe that cost about $ 20 billion (18.9 billion euros). An oil spill as far as Saudi Arabia and across the Bab al-Mandab Strait could have completely different consequences: the important shipping route and access to the Suez Canal may have to be closed. For logistics and commerce, it would be a dramatic renewal of the “Ever Given” affair – the container ship that blocked the Suez Canal for days. Twelve percent of global trade passes through the waterway every day.
Time is also urgent because the rescue would take several months. It should end before September off-coast weather worsens. Starting in October, strong winds and unstable currents make the action more dangerous and increase the risk of the old colossus being torn apart.
© dpa-infocom, dpa: 220511-99-241655 / 6