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U.N. crowdfunding to avert "environmental, humanitarian and economic catastrophe" as oil tanker rots off Yemen

An image from an animation created by the Netherlands-based SMIT marine salvage company for the United Nations depicts the FSO Safer, a supertanker full of crude oil currently decaying off Yemen's Red Sea coast. UN/SMIT/YouTube

The United Nations has resorted to an online crowdfunding campaign to raise the money needed to avert what a senior U.S. official says would be a major "environmental, humanitarian and economic catastrophe." The U.N.'s lead coordinator for Yemen, David Gressly, launched an appeal for anyone and everyone to pitch in to start defusing what environmental activists call "a ticking time bomb" — a massive tanker full of crude oil slowly decaying off Yemen's coast.

The SFO Safer, a 45-year-old supertanker moored just off Yemen's Red Sea port city of Hodeida, is thought to be loaded with more than 1 million barrels of crude. For more than three years environmental activists and officials have warned the badly corroded ship could start leaking its cargo into the sea — or even explode — with devastating consequences for the ecology, people and economies across the region. 

A file photo shows the FSO Safer supertanker permanently anchored off Yemen's Red Sea coast, west of Hodeida.  HANDOUT

The Yemeni government has said that if the tanker ruptures, it could create an oil spill four times larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. 

The decaying ship was caught for years between the two sides that have torn Yemen apart in a vicious civil war. The vessel was often used as a bargaining chip in the crisis, which has pitted Yemen's internationally recognized, Saudi Arabian-backed government against a Iranian-backed uprising by ethnic Houthi muslims, who control a huge portion of the country.

In late April, the U.N. managed to broker a ceasefire agreement between the Houthi rebels and Yemen's Saudi-backed government.

"Frankly speaking, the primary constraint we face is no longer really political, security, procurement or operational. It's resources," Gressly told an online briefing on Monday.

Gressly and other officials have made it clear they want to use the opportunity presented by the ceasefire to carry out "an initial emergency operation just to get the oil out of the current Safer tanker into a secure vessel."

"Every day that goes by is another day that we take a risk — a chance that this vessel will break up and the catastrophe that I described will unfold," he said.

The FSO Safer supertanker, loaded with 1.1 million barrels of Yemeni crude oil, has gone largely unmaintained since Houthi rebels seized control of the vessel from the Yemeni state-run oil company in 2015. HANDOUT

U.S. Special Envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking told reporters last week that the world must "use this period of relative calm and confidence-building to get the ticking time bomb that is the Safer tanker, with its 1.1 million barrels of oil, offloaded onto a safer vessel so we can avert an economic, humanitarian, and environmental disaster in the Red Sea."

The U.N. estimates that the initial stage of the operation will cost about $80 million, with an additional $64 million needed for the second stage. So far the global body has only about $44 million in hand, with a further $10 million each recently pledged by the U.S. and Saudi governments. The goal of the online crowdfunding effort is to cover another $5 million of the overall $20 million still needed to start phase-one. 

Officials hope public support galvanized for the cause by the campaign will pressure nations, and big businesses that use the vital shipping lanes through the Red Sea, to stump up the rest.

The U.N. released the animation below showing the full process it aims to carry out, to move the oil cargo from the FSO Safer to another tanker.

Animation FSO Safer, Transfer of oil cargo by UN Yemen on YouTube

"Every dollar that the public donates brings us closer to starting the emergency operation, and sends a message to the member states and private companies that have not yet contributed to act now before it is too late," Russell Geekie, the communications director for Gressly's office, told CBS News.

"We're running out of time," warned Gressly, adding that it was "extremely important to get this resource mobilization initiative underway."

He and other officials hope to finish the offloading operation before winter sets in on the Red Sea, making conditions much harder to work in — and before the fragile Yemen ceasefire agreement has too much time to collapse. 

Mohammed Al-Hakimi, founder of the Yemeni environmental lobbying group Holm Akhdar (Green Dream), welcomed the U.N.'s plan to raise the rest of the funds needed. He told CBS News the "plan to rescue the Safer tanker focused on the technical operations of transferring the oil shipment from the dilapidated tanker to another ship, and on the procedures for starting the emergency maintenance of the tanker."

"Despite its importance," however, Al-Hakimi urged the global community to also come up with a plan to support "local people who will be potentially affected by the disaster" if it isn't carried out in time,"namely the fishermen, whose number is estimated at more than 126,000, as well as more than 186,000 farmers, and about 90,000 beekeepers and others."

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