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Yemen: Dutch aid raises UN hopes of salvaging 'ticking time bomb' oil tanker

Analysts warn that time is running out to offload a million barrels of oil from a tanker off Yemen's coast
A million barrels of crude oil need to be rescued from the decaying FSO Safer tanker moored off Yemen’s Red Sea coast (AFP)

donation by the Netherlands has raised hopes that an environmental catastrophe off the coast of Yemen can be averted by rescuing the stranded FSO Safer oil tanker, which holds a million barrels of crude oil. 

Experts have cautioned that the large tanker-turned-floating storage and offloading vessel could explode or break apart at any moment.

However, the work to repair the rusting ship has been delayed partly due to funding shortages and, to a greater extent, international neglect.

Over the weekend, the Dutch minister for foreign trade and development cooperation, Liesje Schreinemacher, announced that the Netherlands would release $7.4m in funds to salvage the vessel. 

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Earlier this year, the UN started a crowdfunding campaign to raise $80m. The contribution from the Netherlands means that work can finally get underway to diffuse what Schreinemacher called a "ticking time bomb".

"Normally, as a minister, it's my job to deal with the repercussions of disasters. But in this instance, we have a chance to prevent a disaster," Schreinemacher said while in Yemen making the announcement. 

'The reality is that an agreement to address the FSO Safer threat, and funding to support that operation, does not guarantee that an oil spill will be avoided'

- Hannah Porter, independent Yemen consultant

Hannah Porter, an independent Yemen consultant speaking to Middle East Eye, praised the "important and necessary step towards resolving the Safer issue and eliminating the threat of a catastrophic oil spill".

However, Porter cautioned that the hard work had just begun. Observers, she said, should not equate "funding the operation with completing the operation".

"The reality is that an agreement to address the FSO Safer threat, and funding to support that operation, does not guarantee that an oil spill will be avoided."

The decaying 45-year-old oil tanker, long used as a floating storage platform and now abandoned off the Houthi movement-held Yemeni port of Hodeidah, has not been serviced since Yemen was plunged into civil war more than seven years ago. 

"The real test will be whether or not this operation is, in fact, carried out and the Safer's oil is offloaded onto a secure vessel. Short of that happening, the FSO Safer will remain a grave threat to the region's environment, economy and the health of local populations," said Porter. 

Environmentalists have warned the cost of the salvage operation, around $80m, would be a fraction of the estimated $20bn it would cost to clean up a spill. 

"In order for this operation to take place, the Sanaa authorities need to be cooperative and need to facilitate the offloading and replacement of this vessel, including by ensuring the security and safety of those conducting the operation," added Porter. 

The Yemeni capital of Sanaa is controlled by the Iran-aligned Houthi group that ousted the Saudi- and western-backed government. Following the 2014 Houthi takeover, a Saudi-led coalition entered the conflict in support of the Yemeni government.

A truce between the rebels and the Saudi-led coalition has been in place since 2 April, coinciding with the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

"We should not take it for granted that they [the Houthis] will see this operation through and not pull out of the agreement, as they have done previously," warned Porter. 

UN still short of funding target needed to rescue decaying tanker off Yemen's coast
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If the salvage operation does go through, it offers the tantalising prospect of deepening trust amongst the different warring parties as well as being "a significant confidence-building measure between the Sanaa authorities and the international community", said Porter. 

As long as tensions between the internationally recognised government and the Houthi movement continue, an immediate resolution to the FSO Safer oil tanker could remain elusive. 

The UN has outlined a solution where the oil is simply offloaded onto another, more secure ship, therefore bypassing the need to immediately sell the oil, which could be a significant source of revenue to the warring parties. 

The FSO Safer has been considered a useful bargaining chip for the Houthis, one they were reluctant to give up. 

Should the sides ultimately agree to rescue the oil tanker, "it will demonstrate a degree of cooperation on issues that are mutually beneficial, and hopefully, that cooperation could be expanded to other issues that are impacting Yemenis, such as food insecurity and lack of access to key roads, among many others", added Porter.

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