Securing the Safer: A race against time for the people of Yemen and the Red Sea


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Jul 10, 2023

Securing the Safer: A race against time for the people of Yemen and the Red Sea

Yemen An international operation to prevent a major oil spill in the


An international operation to prevent a major oil spill in the Red Sea has reached a critical juncture. A support vessel has arrived at the FSO Safer supertanker to assess conditions on board and prepare for the transfer of a million barrels of oil off the decaying ship. After nearly two years of preparations, this kicks off the emergency phase of a delicate operation to avert immense human suffering and costly environmental ruin.

An urgent and complex problem

The Safer, moored in the Red Sea roughly eight kilometres off the coast, is an oil storage vessel carrying an estimated 1.1 million barrels of light crude. This is four times as much oil as carried by the Exxon Valdez in 1989, the second worst oil spill in the history of the United States.

The Safer is 47 years old. The conflict in Yemen means there has been no maintenance on it for seven years. Its structural integrity is possibly compromised, and its condition continues to worsen. A dangerous build-up of flammable gases in its tanks is likely.

The threat of disaster – a spill from a breach in the hull, or an explosion – grows greater with every passing day. At any time, the stranded ship could be struck by a dislodged mine, or it could spontaneously combust or break up.

The result would be a humanitarian and environmental catastrophe.

The people of Yemen will suffer the most. A significant spill could close of the ports of Hodeidah and Saleef, which brings food, fuel and life-saving supplies into Yemen for 17 million people.

Millions could be exposed to highly polluted air, and fishing communities along the coast could be devastated, with as many as 200,000 livelihoods being wiped out.

A spill could devastate one of the world's richest marine environments, destroying pristine reefs and coastal mangroves.

Oil from the Safer could reach the African coast and any country bordering the Red Sea.

It could also disrupt the Suez Canal, one of the world's most important shipping lanes. This would mean billions in trade losses every day, which is what happened when the super container Ever Given grounded in 2021.

The clean-up costs could be as much as US$20 billion, and the damage could take as long as 25 years to recover from.

The path to a solution

In September 2021, the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen was tasked with leading the UN System response on the Safer and coordinating all efforts to resolve the threat, as well as strengthening contingency plans in the event of a spill, and UNDP is operational lead.

The UN and UNDP teams produced a plan to prevent a spill by transferring the oil to a safe vessel and installing a replacement tanker.

The UN has worked closely with the Government of Yemen. In September 2022, the Government in Aden and Sana’a authorities came up with a long-term solution – a replacement vessel to hold the oil tethered to a special buoy system – a CALM buoy – that makes it a Floating Storage and Offloading, or ‘FSO’, will be installed.

The scale and complexity of the task means the UN has had to draw on specialized expertise. The International Maritime Organization and UN Environment Programme are supporting the contingency planning efforts.

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has provided bridging finance from the Central Emergency Relief Fund.

The World Food Programme (WFP) has contributed its experience contracting and operating large transport vessels.

The emergency phase

UNDP has begun work on the emergency phase.

Following consultation with maritime legal firms, shipbrokers, insurance companies and oil spill experts, UNDP secured a replacement vessel – the Nautica – from leading global tanker company Euronav. Since then, the Nautica has been modified so that it can function as an ‘FSO’. UNDP has also contracted leading global marine salvage company SMIT to undertake the ship-to-ship transfer.

First a crew of experts onboard SMIT support vessel Ndeavor will inspect the Safer and make it safe. This is perhaps the riskiest stage of the process since nobody knows what the conditions onboard are like.

Once the ‘all clear’ is given, a very large crude carrier or ‘VLCC’ – the Nautica – will arrive alongside the Safer. The SMIT will then transfer the oil to the Nautica. If all goes well, it will take about three weeks.

The Safer will be towed, and a ‘CALM’ buoy will be installed – a tethering system will allow the replacement tanker to be safely moored offshore for a longer period of time.

An example of what international cooperation can achieve The journey of the Safer is one of political complexities, operational risks, and funding challenges. To reach this point has not been easy.

UN has mobilized UNDP, the UN Environment Programme, the International Maritime Organization, OCHA, WFP, as well as UN Member States, private companies and the general public. This collaboration remains critical to the project's success.

"This is a proud moment for the United Nations and for the UN Development Programme as the implementing partner for the emergency phase of the project to remove the oil," UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner said. "It is also a clear sign of what multilateral cooperation can achieve, and a prime example of the importance of prevention."

Obstacles remain We cannot celebrate until the oil is safely off the Safer. Aside from the ongoing risk of an explosion or spill, the project is reliant on the continued goodwill and commitment from the parties to the Yemen conflict.

A more permanent solution for what to will happen to the oil after it has been transferred to the Nautica is also a critical issue. The UN continues to work tirelessly to find a solution.

Last but not least, despite the generosity of donors to date, the project remains underfunded.

$114 million has so far been mobilized from generous Member States, the private sector and the global public, as well as additional internal bridging finance.

With this funding, the UN has the resources to carry out phase 1 of the operation. A million barrels of oil will be transferred from the Safer to the replacement vessel, preventing the worst-case humanitarian, environmental and economic catastrophe.

Even after the ship-to-ship transfer, the decaying Safer will still carry a considerable amount of viscous residual oil and pose a significant environmental threat to the Red Sea.

The operation has begun – but to finish it without delay, the UN is counting on further generous contributions.

"With 144 million we can save $20 billion in clean-up costs and untold billions of damage to the environment, to fishing, to shipping, tourism in the Red Sea area," the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, David Gressly, said. "Do we prevent this catastrophe, or do we allow it to happen? It's our choice. Let's choose wisely."

An additional $29 million for both the emergency phase and phase 2 is required to complete the work, including as a matter of urgency to repay the $20 million in internal bridge financing from the UN Central Emergency Response Fund.

We cannot afford not to succeed – the potential impacts of failure are simply too great for the people of Yemen who are already suffering enough, not to mention the possible danger to the Red Sea, the Suez Canal and the wider region, and the global economy. We urge the international community to step up its support at this critical juncture.

The United Nations and UNDP are grateful for the support of the following donors on the Safer Project:

The Netherlands, Germany, the United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, Sweden, the European Union, Qatar, Norway, France, Kuwait, Canada, Finland, Japan, Denmark, Switzerland, Luxemburg, Greece, Cyprus, the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers, the HSA Group, and the Trafigura Foundation for contributions and pledges, as well individual members of the public who have contributed more than $250,000 through a UN crowdfunding campaign.

An international operation to prevent a major oil spill in the Red Sea has reached a critical juncture. An urgent and complex problem The result would be a humanitarian and environmental catastrophe. The path to a solution The emergency phase