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Man helps raise millions of dollars to avert oil tanker disaster in Red Sea: 'A ticking timebomb'

The FSO Safer, which was 47 years old and had serious mechanical and structural risks, was abandoned since 2015 and had been carrying 1.1m barrels of oil.

Man helps raise millions of dollars to avert oil tanker disaster in Red Sea: 'A ticking timebomb'
Yemen's oil tanker Safer floats near the Ras Isa port in the Red Sea on July 15, 2023 in Hudaydah, Yemen. (Photo by Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)

For many years, more than a million barrels of crude oil had been sitting on a decaying oil tanker off the coast of Yemen on the verge of leaching into the Red Sea. The FSO Safer, was 47 years old and had serious mechanical and structural risks, as it was abandoned offshore in 2015 when war broke out. According to The Guardian the vessel’s safety systems which would prevent gas explosions and fire broke down.

If the vessel exploded it could have resulted in one of the worst oil spills in recent history. “The FSO Safer has been hanging over our heads like a ticking timebomb since 2015,” said Ghiwa Nakat, the executive director of Greenpeace for the Middle East and North Africa. “The thought of a major oil spill in the Red Sea hindering the distribution of essential food aid to millions of vulnerable individuals was a chilling nightmare,” Nakat added.



 

Then came UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen David Gressly who was determined to not let that happen. He set out to search for funding over many months. “If we had a major oil spill there, we would have probably raised a billion dollars in a month—because there are mechanisms for governments to do just that,” Gressly said. Back in 2022, he spoke to CBC News in an interview ahead of a fundraising event urging action be taken as soon as possible. "This vessel could break up tomorrow. Every day that we wait is a gamble. An explosion risk has become very real now, and it's actually just a matter of time. It will fall apart—the only question is when," he said at the time.

UN Coordinator to Yemen, David Gressly and the Houthi-appointed executive general manager of SEPOC Edrees al-Shami sign the handover documents of the Nautica vessel to Yemen over its arrival to Al Hudaydah port in the Red Sea on July 17, 2023 in Hudaydah, Yemen. The United Nations handed over the replacement vessel Nautica to the Sana'a government to transfer the crude oil from the deteriorating supertanker to prevent a large-scale environmental disaster if the ship’s cargo leaks into the ocean. (Photo by Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)
UN Coordinator to Yemen, David Gressly and the Houthi-appointed executive general manager of SEPOC Edrees al-Shami sign the handover documents of the Nautica vessel to Yemen over its arrival to Al Hudaydah port in the Red Sea on July 17, 2023 in Hudaydah, Yemen. The United Nations handed over the replacement vessel Nautica to the Sana'a government to transfer the crude oil from the deteriorating supertanker to prevent a large-scale environmental disaster if the ship’s cargo leaks into the ocean. (Photo by Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)

A UNDP statement, per the BBC, said "a major spill would devastate fishing communities on Yemen's Red Sea coast, likely wiping out 200,000 livelihoods instantly. Whole communities would be exposed to life-threatening toxins. Highly polluted air would affect millions." A potential oil spill could cost up to $20 billion to clean up, it added. In an usual twist, Gressly launched a crowdfunding drive with the UN to expand its appeal to the public in June 2022.

Of the required $144 million, they were able to gather $75 million—more than half of the required amount from a mix that included 17 countries, Yemeni businessmen and schoolchildren in the US. The campaign finally got the total amount raised to $121 million in July this year. The rest was covered by the UN’s emergency humanitarian fund which provided a loan that closed the remaining $20 million gap.



 

While the story fortunately had a happy ending, Nakat wants to highlight the complacency of the oil companies in such a huge issue.  “You have the international community, UN members, and individuals from around the world coming together to contribute $121 million and counting... on the other hand, you have these oil giants, who should bear the lion’s share of responsibility, neglecting their duties,” she said. As for Gressly he's just glad that the end result came through. He had to keep fighting off skepticism to the very last day that the fundraising would be “money that was well spent”. “Prevention is just not a thing that we do collectively,” he said. “Fortunately, this was an exception.”



 

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