Oil-Transfer Operation Off Yemen Coast Under Way to Avert Humanitarian, Environmental Catastrophe, Secretary-General Says, Calling for $20 Million to Complete Project

The following statement by UN Secretary-General António Guterres was issued today:

The United Nations has begun an operation to defuse what might be the world’s largest ticking time bomb.

A complex maritime salvage effort is now under way in the Red Sea off the coast of war-torn Yemen to transfer 1 million barrels of oil from the decaying FSO Safer to a replacement vessel.  In the absence of anyone else willing or able to perform this task, the United Nations stepped up and assumed the risk to conduct this very delicate operation.

This is an all-hands-on-deck mission and the culmination of nearly two years of political groundwork, fundraising and project development.  The ship-to-ship transfer of oil which has started today is the critical next step in avoiding an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe on a colossal scale.

Without action, the vessel could have exploded or broken apart, spilling as much as four times the oil released in the Exxon Valdez disaster; fishing communities would be wiped out; hundreds of thousands of jobs would instantly disappear; whole communities would be exposed to deadly toxins; major ports including Hodeidah and Saleef would be forced to close indefinitely; food, fuel and life-saving supplies for millions would halt; water, coral reefs, sea life would be utterly devastated; shipping all the way to the Suez Canal could be disrupted for weeks.

The potential clean-up bill alone could easily run into the tens of billions of dollars.  That is why we have been raising the alarm and working to mobilize support to avoid this nightmare.

The United Nations enlisted the best in the business:  a team of world-leading experts in maritime law, oil spills, salvage operations, marine engineers, naval architects, insurance brokers and underwriters, chemists, surveyors and more.

This operation required relentless political work in a country devastated by eight years of war.  It depended on generous financial support.  I thank the many countries, corporate and philanthropic donors, as well as ordinary citizens for pledging funds for this critical part of the operation. Getting to this significant moment also required many parts of the United Nations working as one.

The ship-to-ship transfer of oil is an important milestone, but it is far from the end of the journey.  The next critical step is arrangement for the delivery of a specialized buoy to which the replacement vessel will be safely and securely tethered.

Looking immediately ahead, we will need about $20 million to finish the project, which includes cleaning and scrapping the FSO Safer and removing any remaining environmental threat to the Red Sea. I urge donors to act at this crucial time.

The operation that is now under way is a story of cooperation, prevention, political mediation, ingenuity and environmental management — demonstrating once again the indispensable role of the United Nations with our partners.

We need to keep working together over this next critical period to defuse what remains a ticking time bomb and avoid what would be by far the worst oil spill of our era.

For information media. Not an official record.