Citing the unfolding environmental disaster in Mauritius and the devastation in Beirut, the world outcry is growing louder for UN officials to gain access to a rusting oil tanker moored off Yemen. Leaders from the Arab world along with the environmental group Greenpeace were among the latest to appeal for action.
The single-hull FSO Safer, a 46-year-old converted tanker sits just off the port of Hodeidah in Houthi rebel-held territory. Houthi (Ansar Allah) forces have not permitted UN inspection teams to board the vessel despite repeated appeals.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs issued an update on the situation on August 10 saying the aging vessel is carrying more than 1 million barrels of oil and has had almost no maintenance since 2015.
According to the UN, two months ago, seawater began leaking into the engine room, which could have destabilized and sunk the entire vessel, potentially releasing all the oil into the sea. A temporary fix was applied, but it is unclear how long this might last.
A major spill would be catastrophic for the environment and would destroy the livelihoods of coastal communities in Yemen. Most of the oil would likely wash up on Yemen’s west coast in areas controlled by the Houthi authorities. A spill would also likely force Hudaydah port to close for weeks or months, which would cripple Yemen’s largest port. Because Yemen imports nearly all its food and everything else, the UN said this would have devastating consequences for millions of people – including communities located far from the coast.
On July 14, the UN submitted an official request to the Houthi authorities to undertake an assessment and initial repair mission to the Safer. The UN is in contact with the authorities on this and urges them to expedite the necessary procedures so this work can begin.
Previous appeals for UN access to the FSO have not been granted, and overall trust between Houthi forces and the UN is at a low point. In February, the United Nations reduced aid to Houthi-controlled regions because Houthi militias were allegedly blocking or restricting humanitarian missions.
In a letter to the UN Secretary-General Greenpeace called on the UN to make the situation its top priority and use its “full diplomatic and technical capacity to carry out an urgent on-board technical assessment to determine what repairs are needed to make the vessel at least temporarily safe.” Greenpeace says that the oil should be removed to a seaworthy vessel as soon as possible.
The Arab world is also speaking out. Saudi Arabia urged the UN to push the rebels into letting experts assess damage to a rusting oil tanker. “During a meeting with the UN envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, Saudi ambassador to Yemen Mohammed Al Jaber stressed the urgent need for experts to access the tanker,” the Saudi Press Agency reported.
Similarly, the Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Dr. Nayef Al-Hajraf called upon a team of experts to inspect the FSO Safer oil tanker in Yemen to avoid a serious environmental disaster.
So far the rebels have not shown any sign of changing their position to let the inspections aboard the vessel.