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Arab countries urge UN to inspect abandoned tanker off Yemen to prevent environmental crisis

20 March 2020

On March 19, six Arab countries wrote a joint letter to the UN Security Council urging it to convince Yemen’s Houthi rebels to allow UN inspectors access to an abandoned oil storage vessel moored in the Red Sea. The ‘Safer’ floating storage and offloading (FSO) vessel, which contains around 181 million litres of oil, was found to be an explosion and oil spill risk in July 2019 but remains caught up in Yemen’s ongoing civil war.

Representative image: Shutterstock
Representative image: Shutterstock

In the letter sent by UN ambassadors from Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen, the UN Security Council was warned that should a spill occur, the environmental impact would be four times greater than that seen during the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska. The Safer FSO has remained moored seven kilometres outside the Red Sea port of Ras Isa, north of Hodeidah since March 2015 when Iranian-backed Houthi rebels captured the area from the UN and Saudi-backed Yemeni government.

Since that time, FSO Safer has not been maintained or inspected, raising fears that explosive gases may have built up in the vessel’s storage tanks. If an explosion occurs, huge quantities of crude oil could be released into the Red Sea, causing devastating environmental and humanitarian damage.

Hodeida, Yemen’s main port which handles the majority of the war-stricken country’s imports, would likely be closed for many months should an explosion or leak occur, the six UN ambassadors say in their letter. Around 1.7 million people who work in the fishing industry would be impacted and “about 40 per cent of the agricultural land cultivated in Yemen would be covered with black clouds, which would result in the elimination of grains, fruits and vegetables,” the letter states.

The ambassadors are calling on the UN to intervene after several attempts to assess the vessel’s condition failed in recent months. The two sides in the Yemeni conflict blame each other for failing to reach a solution about what to do about the ship and its valuable cargo.

The Houthis want guarantees that they will be able to control the revenues from the oil on the ship valued at $80m, which the UN-recognised Yemen government has vetoed. The latter have suggested towing the vessel to Bahrain for repairs, which the Houthis will not allow.

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