UN drains oil from ‘ticking time bomb’ tanker off Yemen


The United Nations has begun siphoning 1.1m barrels of oil from a rotting tanker off the coast of Yemen, ending a year-long mission to remove what environmental groups have called a “ticking time bomb”.

The rusting Safer Tanker has been left languishing 6km off the coast of Yemen since its maintenance operations were suspended in 2014 due to the war.

Experts had warned that the tanker could explode soon due to its structural deterioration, causing an oil spill four times larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off Alaska.

According to internal documents obtained by the AP in June 2020, seawater had already entered the tanker’s engine compartment, increasing the risk of it sinking.

The UN has warned that the spill could destroy the rich and biodiverse ecosystem of the Red Sea, home to one of the world’s longest continuous reefs.

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It could also have dire implications for the local population, leading to widespread famine due to the forced closure of ports and the collapse of the fishing industry.

“In the absence of anyone else willing or able to undertake this task, the United Nations stepped up and took the risk of carrying out this very sensitive operation,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

A lack of funding delayed the repair of the rusty ship and the United Nations encouraged part of the mission, which cost a total of $143m, to crowdfund, which also covered the purchase of a replacement tanker, the Nautica.

It is estimated that it will take 19 days to complete the rescue operation according to a statement from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

“Obviously we are very cautious – it’s just the beginning of a transition,” UNDP spokeswoman Sarah Bel told a press briefing in Geneva when asked about the risks of the operation.

The UNDP warned that cleaning up the spill could cost an estimated $20bn.

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