NEW YORK - U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged Yemeni rebels on Friday to allow international experts to access an old, neglected oil tanker carrying more than a million barrels of crude oil, which is at risk of leaking or completely spilling into the Red Sea.
“The aging tanker has had almost no maintenance since 2015 and risks causing a major oil spill, explosion or fire that would have catastrophic environmental and humanitarian consequences for Yemen and the region,” said Guterres’ spokesperson Stephane Dujarric.
U.N. officials have been seeking access to the vessel, known as the FSO Safer, for two years in order to assess its safety, do light repairs and eventually tow it to a safe port to remove the oil, but the Houthi rebels in control of the area have repeatedly reneged on promises to allow that to happen. The U.N. says as soon as authorizations and visas are granted their experts are ready to deploy.
The recent oil spill off Mauritius and last week’s catastrophic explosion in the Lebanese capital, apparently from improperly stored ammonium nitrate, have highlighted the urgency to prevent yet another disaster.
The U.N. says the FSO Safer has the potential to cause an oil spill four times greater than the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, which involved about 257,000 barrels of oil.
Time is running out
On May 27, seawater leaked into the engine room of the FSO Safer, threatening to destabilize and sink the ship and release its oil into the sea. The U.N. says a temporary fix contained the leak, but it is unlikely to hold for very long.
“A spill would have catastrophic environmental and humanitarian consequences, including destroying livelihoods and shutting down Hodeida port, a vital lifeline for millions of Yemenis who depend on commercial imports and humanitarian aid,” Dujarric said.
If there is a spill, the U.N. says, the marine-rich coastal areas of Hodeida, Hajjah and Taiz would likely be the worst hit, and the port at Hodeida, which is lifeline for the country, would have to close for as long as six months.
“Yemen cannot afford the closure of its largest port as it is almost entirely dependent on imports for its basic needs of food and medicines,” Dujarric said.
There is also concern that if oil spills or explodes, it would be extremely difficult to bring in the specialized equipment and personnel to mount the necessary response, especially as Yemen is in the midst of a civil war.
In addition to environmental and human tolls, the U.N. projects that the impact of an oil spill from the tanker could cost an estimated $1.5 billion over 25 years.
The government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, with the support of Saudi Arabia, has been fighting the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels since 2015 for control of the country. More than five years of war has pushed the Middle East’s poorest country to the brink, with about four out of every five people in need of humanitarian assistance.