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Defusing a “ticking time bomb” with Yemen’s damaged oil tanker


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Since 2015, a rusty ship carrying more than a million barrels of oil has been abandoned off the coast of war-torn Yemen. If it explodes or breaks apart, the tanker poses a serious environmental concern.

On Sunday, a supertanker belonging by the United Nations arrived for a delicate operation to pump the oil from the FSO Safer, which had been abandoned.

blast danger

The 47-year-old Safer is moored off Yemen’s western port of Hodeida in the Red Sea, a crucial maritime route, where it has long been utilised as a floating oil storage platform. Throughout Yemen’s eight-year civil conflict, it hasn’t received any maintenance.

The Safer, which is four times as much oil as the Exxon Valdez disaster off Alaska in 1989, is currently eight kilometres (five miles) from the coast.

In 2017, the mechanisms required to fill its tanks with inert gas ceased to function, increasing the danger of an explosion. The ship has been referred to as a “ticking time bomb” by the UN and Greenpeace.

A budget of about $143 million has been set down for the UN operation to remove the oil from the Safer and tow the ship to a salvage yard.

Tow the Safer to a recycling yard and securely tether the replacement vessel to assure the safe storage of the oil until its final destination are tasks that, according to the UN, still require an extra $22 million.

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$20 billion in spills?

The UN estimates that clean-up expenses after a disaster might reach $20 billion, with potentially disastrous environmental, humanitarian, and economic repercussions.

According to the UN, a significant spill would completely destroy Yemen’s fishing towns around the Red Sea, eradicating 200,000 people’s means of subsistence.

The Hodeidah and Saleef ports, which are lifelines for delivering food, fuel, and other essential supplies into Yemen, where the majority of the population depends on aid for survival, might be closed as well as desalination plants on the Red Sea.

The spill would cause very contaminated air to spread over a wide area, exposing entire communities to pollutants that might be fatal, and it could travel as far as Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia.

The UN estimates that a disruption in maritime traffic through the Bab al-Mandab Strait to the Suez Canal, which is the route to the Mediterranean, might cost billions every day.

Abrupt changes and delays

Since the Huthi rebels, who rule a large portion of northern Yemen, including Hodeida harbour, have repeatedly refused UN requests for access, efforts to inspect the decrepit ship have gone on for years.

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In order to pay the salaries of its employees, the Huthis have demanded assurances that the Safer will be given the worth of its oil.

The Huthis and the UN signed a memorandum of agreement in March of last year, creating a framework for collaboration to expedite the project.

Finally, on May 30, inspections began after a team of specialists from the private company arrived.

Another significant hurdle was overcome in June when the UN obtained insurance coverage for the difficult and dangerous operation.
circulating oil

The UN reported earlier this month that SMIT had determined the ship to be stable enough for a ship-to-ship transfer.

Supertanker Nautica, which the UN had bought for the oil transfer, had arrived from Djibouti on Sunday and was scheduled to moor next to the Safer. Within three days, the pumping operation was supposed to begin.

Depending on how easily it can be pumped, removing the oil might take anywhere from a week to a month, according to Peter Berdowski, CEO of SMIT Salvage’s parent company Boskalis, last month.

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The deteriorating Safer will nevertheless “continue to constitute a persistent environmental concern, storing sticky oil waste and persisting.

The UN has cautioned that the deteriorating Safer will continue to “pose a residual environmental threat, holding viscous oil residue and remaining at risk of breaking apart” even after the transfer.
SMIT will determine how much oil sludge is still in the Safer’s tanks before and after the transfer, and it will either be transferred to a specialised yard for cleaning or, if it is too fragile to be relocated, it will be cleaned on location.

The Safer is meant to be completely decommissioned and have all of its components recycled. As negotiations over who will handle the ship and the oil continue, the Nautica will be renamed Yemen and remain in the region.

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