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An urgent appeal to the shipping community: Help the UN avert catastrophe in Yemen

FSO Safer is on the brink of breaking up in Hodeidah, and the resultant oil spill would exacerbate the country’s famine and devastate the Red Sea ecosystem

War-torn Yemen could soon face environmental degradation of a degree as large as any witnessed in recent decades. Shipping will not be to blame. But collective intervention from shipping is the last best hope of preventing it

THE late twentieth century was punctuated by a sorry litany of tanker break-up oil spills that ran from Torrey Canyon, Amoco Cadiz, Exxon Valdez, Braer and Sea Empress to Erika and Prestige.

It would be tempting fate to argue that no casualty on this scale will ever occur again. But the sharply diminished frequency is testimony to the immensely higher safety standards that now prevail.

Yet oil pollution incidents are not entirely banished to the past. Rigs like Deepwater Horizon explode; crane barges hit anchored very large crude carriers such as Hebei Spirit; and while bunker spills are of a lesser order of magnitude, the impact of Wakashio and Rena was huge in their localities.

There is now a real risk that Yemen could soon face environmental degradation of a degree as large as any witnessed in recent decades.

Shipping will not be to blame. But collective intervention from shipping is the last best hope of preventing it.

The case of FSO Safer (IMO: 7376472) — a decaying former VLCC, converted into a floating storage and offloading facility in the late 1980s — has been attracting on-off headlines for some time.

As you may know, it has been trapped alongside Hodeidah since the outbreak of civil war in Yemen in 2015, and has not benefited from even basic maintenance for the past eight years.

Inevitably, matters have now reached the point at which the risk of it losing structural integrity and shedding more than a million barrels of oil could materialise at any moment.

The consequence will be the destruction of not just the ecosystem of the Red Sea but the lives of millions of people. Fishing stocks will collapse, and the ensuing chaos will exacerbate already rampant famine.

Conservative estimates of the initial clean-up costs hover around the $20bn mark, and the fighting on land will mean that operations are unlikely to happen with sufficient speed to avert what the United Nations has warned repeatedly referred to as a “catastrophic situation”.

But there is an opportunity to avert all this. The United Nations is looking for support and Lloyd’s List is stepping up to publish this appeal to the shipping industry, and quite literally save a part of the world. We do so gladly.

The help required entails more than owners simply putting hands in their pocket. What is needed is the provision of a VLCC to participate in one of the most risky and complex salvage operations in history.

We will spare readers a crash course in the backstory of the conflict. This is no call to take sides.

In 2022 the UN reached agreement with key parties in Yemen to move ahead with a planned salvage operation.

But the key missing component is a tanker, specifically a VLCC which will likely have to stay put while the next phase of the operation is implemented and FSO Safer is safely scrapped.

The UN has collected around $80m to facilitate the project. But the pot is nowhere near enough to charter the necessary tonnage at a commercial rate and finance the emergency response.

The UN itself cannot own a VLCC, and so Lloyd’s List is looking to help the UN find a shipowner — or potentially a group of industry philanthropists — to either put up a generous direct financial subvention or to enter a charter arrangement at well below cost. Marine insurers are also asked to assist in providing cover.

What happens to the oil once it is pumped off FSO Safer and how long this replacement tanker has to wait for diplomatic démarches to enter effect is yet to be clarified.

Any owner even considering joining the effort needs to know upfront that they are entering an unprecedented and difficult situation.

But extraordinary is what the shipping industry is routinely able to deliver. If you feel able to step forward, we will happily furnish the introductions.

Serious expressions of interest should be directed to Lloyd’s List’s editor Richard Meade (Richard.meade@lloydslistintelligence.com) for further discussion with the UN and their expert ad.

This is obviously the biggest “Big Ask” this publication has ever made. But as the famous aphorism expresses it: If not us, who? And if not now, when?

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