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Former Euronav VLCC Departs China on FSO Safer Oil Removal Mission

The former Euronav Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC) that the UN purchased as part of a mission to prevent a catastrophic oil spill in Yemen’s Red Sea has departed from Zhoushan, China.

The VLCC Nautica has been in drydock in Zhoushan for regular maintenance and modifications, but is expected to arrive in the Red Sea in early May.

Its departure is a significant development in the operation to remove over a million barrels of oil from the decaying FSO Safer supertanker off Yemen’s coast that could cause a humanitarian, environmental and economic catastrophe. The Safer has been moored off Yemen’s Ras Isa peninsula since 1988, but production, offloading and maintenance operations have been stopped since 2015 due to the war in Yemen. As a result, the Safer’s structural integrity has deteriorated, increasing the risk that it explode or break up at any time, spilling some 1.1 barrels of oil that remain inside. 

The UN Development Programme (UNDP), which is implementing the operation as part of a UN-coordinated initiative, has contracted the marine salvage company SMIT to ready the Safer and safely carry out the ship-to-ship transfer of the oil. 

In March, the UNDP reached an agreement with Belgian tanker company Euronav to secure the purchase of the Nautica for the transfer of oil from the Safer. However, the project still urgently needs funding to execute the operation. As of April 4, the UN had received firm commitments for $95 million, leaving a funding gap of $34 million.

The UN warns that a major spill would devastate fishing communities on Yemen’s Red Sea coast, impacting the livelihoods of some 200,000 instantly. The cost of cleanup alone is estimated at $20 billion, while disruptions to shipping through the Bab al-Mandab strait to the Suez Canal could cost billions more in global trade losses every day.

The spiraling cost for VLCCs, in a market affected by the war in Ukraine, and other factors, has led to the need for additional funding to complete the emergency phase of the plan. To fill the budget gap, the UN is appealing to Member States and private entities, as well as the global public through a crowdfunding campaign.

“The sailing of the vessel that will take on the Safer’s oil brings us closer to preventing a catastrophe,” said David Gressly, the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen who has led on UN system-wide efforts on the Safer since September 2021. “Donors have been generous. We just need the final piece of funding this month to ensure success.”