The Guardian view on imminent disaster in Yemen: it can be prevented

It is both disgraceful and absurd that the United Nations should be forced to rattle a tin to prevent a major environmental and humanitarian catastrophe that, without intervention, is all but inevitable. The UN needs just $20m more – chump change, in terms of international funding – to begin unloading more than a million barrels of oil from a fast-decaying tanker moored off the coast of Yemen, in the fragile ecosystem of the Red Sea. Yet it has been forced to take the rare step of turning to the public to crowdfund cash, after governments failed to stump enough up. In the week of the UN’s Oceans conference, it is still waiting to amass sufficient funds.

The FSO Safer holds more than four times the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez in 1989. When the war in Yemen broke out in 2014, normal maintenance halted on the ageing ship. It is now beyond repair, kept afloat largely through the heroic efforts of a seven-strong crew; the captain says it is a miracle that disaster has not struck already. The former chief executive of the company that owns the ship has described it as a “bomb”. A stray cigarette butt, a bullet or even static electricity could spark a huge explosion. Two years ago, a burst pipe almost led to it sinking.

The consequences would be horrifying. Pristine reefs, mangroves and marine life would be devastated and a vast stretch of fisheries, on which Yemenis are heavily dependent, could be wiped out. The ports of Hodeidah and Saleef, essential for imports – 90% of Yemen’s food supplies – would close. Desalination plants would be hit, potentially disrupting clean water supplies to 9 million people. All this in a country already suffering one of the worst humanitarian emergencies on the planet, with 3.5 million pregnant or breastfeeding women and children under five requiring treatment for acute malnutrition – and the effects would be felt beyond its borders too.

The resulting cleanup operation alone would cost an estimated $20bn. Around a tenth of the world’s shipping goes through the Bab el-Mandeb strait, which could be hit by the spill at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars a day. Even in crudely economic terms, $80m for the first and most crucial stage of the operation – transferring the oil to a safer ship – looks like an indisputable bargain.

Yet arms had to be twisted before the US, Saudis and others pledged most of the cash needed – and a $20m shortfall remains. Part of the issue is that funding is often tied to emergency response, and cannot be offered for prevention. But the poor response is also, surely, connected to the terrible war that has brought so much death and destruction and in which so many other countries have manoeuvred for advantage while Yemenis suffer.

It is not guaranteed that the two-stage plan – for the transfer of the oil, followed by the provision of a new tanker – will work. Attempts to reach a deal were obstructed for many years by disputes between the rebel Houthis, who control the ship, and the internationally recognised government. The Houthis previously cancelled a UN safety inspection at the last minute, citing unrelated demands in negotiations on the war.

But there has never been a better chance to solve this problem. The current ceasefire, plus the negotiating efforts of David Gressly, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Yemen, have created an opportunity. It must be taken now, so the job can be completed before the weather worsens with the approach of winter, increasing the risk of the vessel breaking up. Should the international community fail to seize it, with predictable consequences, its responsibility will be clear. Each day takes the FSO Safer closer to tragedy – or a solution. It should not be a difficult choice to make.

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