The salvage of the ageing supertanker FSO Safer, off the Yemeni coast, can now begin, the UN said on Wednesday, after it announced that more than $75 million has been pledged to carry out the vital operation.

David Gressly, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, briefed journalists at UN Headquarters in New York, following an event on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly co-hosted by partners in the mammoth rescue effort, the Netherlands, the United States, and Germany.

The rusting vessel has been anchored just a few miles off the Yemen coast for more than 30 years, but offloading and maintenance stopped in 2015 following the start of the war in Yemen, between a Saudi-led coalition backing the internationally-recognized Government, and Houthi rebels.

Fears have grown that unless vessel is secured, it could break apart causing a devastating oil spill and other environmental damage, which the UN estimates would cost at least $20 billion just to clear up, as well as devastate the fragile economy of war-torn Yemen – triggering a humanitarian catastrophe.

The Humanitarian Coordinator reminded what was at stake if action is not taken. A major spill would devastate fishing communities on Yemen’s Red Sea coast, and impact Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia and other countries. The Yemeni ports of Hudaydah and Saleef could be closed, which are essential to bring in food for around 19 million who need assistance.

Tens of millions of dollars now, could save tens of billions of dollars in the future, the UN has warned.