David Gressly, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, briefed journalists at UN Headquarters in New York, following an event on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly co-hosted by partners in the mammoth rescue effort, the Netherlands, the United States, and Germany.
The rusting vessel has been anchored just a few miles off the Yemen coast for more than 30 years, but offloading and maintenance stopped in 2015 following the start of the war in Yemen, between a Saudi-led coalition backing the internationally-recognized Government, and Houthi rebels.
Fears have grown that unless vessel is secured, it could break apart causing a devastating oil spill and other environmental damage, which the UN estimates would cost at least $20 billion just to clear up, as well as devastate the fragile economy of war-torn Yemen – triggering a humanitarian catastrophe.
$38 billion needed for phase two
Mr. Gressly said that once the pledges are fully converted into cash for the initial salvage operation, with more than $77 million promised from 17 countries, an extra $38 billion was still needed for phase two – the installation of safe replacement capacity to secure the one million barrels of oil on board.
The UN plan is for this to be done through transferring the oil to a secure double-hulled vessel, as a permanent storage solution, until the political situation allows it to be sold or transported elsewhere, said the Resident Coordinator.
Mr. Gressly said that apart from the 17 national partners, the private sector, philanthropic foundations and a “very successful” crowd-funding initiative launched in June, had also been instrumental in reaching Wednesday’s “significant milestone”.
Donations large and small
Some 2,000 individuals have generously contributed, and he praised the $1.2 million private sector donation from Yemeni conglomerate The HSA Group
Among those who had helped raise money for the operation, were a group of six children from an elementary school in the US state of Maryland, he said, who had recognized that securing the tanker and avoiding disaster, was “a common problem for us all.”
Although more than $30 million is still needed for phase two, “I believe with the momentum we have seen today, that will be a target we can reach in a timely fashion”, he said.
He praised the warring parties for reaching a political agreement to allow the operation to move forward, and said the next crucial step was now to carry out the salvage, which should begin in earnest in a few weeks’ time. Once underway thanks to the UN Development Programme (UNDP) which will handle the first stage, it will take around four months to stabilize the tanker, before the oil transfer can take place.
‘Cost of failure’
The Humanitarian Coordinator reminded what was at stake if action is not taken. A major spill would devastate fishing communities on Yemen’s Red Sea coast, and impact Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia and other countries. The Yemeni ports of Hudaydah and Saleef could be closed, which are essential to bring in food for around 19 million who need assistance.
Tens of millions of dollars now, could save tens of billions of dollars in the future, the UN has warned.
“Everybody understands the cost, everybody understands the impact, and everybody wants to act. I take great satisfaction in seeing that unified effort today, to find a solution”, said Mr. Gressly.