Yemen: Stricken oil tanker must be inspected to avoid environmental catastrophe, UN expert urges

12 November 2020

 It is “vital” that technical experts be granted immediate access to a rusting oil tanker threatening an environmental calamity in the Red Sea, an independent UN expert said on Thursday. 

Having been abandoned five years ago when its engine room flooded with seawater, the 44-year-old Safer super tanker currently holds some 1.1 million barrels of oil. 

The vessel was abandoned off the coast of Yemen’s key port of Hudaydah, which has been under the control of Houthi militants, one side in the long-running civil conflict between the group formally known as Ansar Allah, and the internationally recognized Yemeni Government. The rapidly decaying vessel sprang a leak in late May.  

Official approval has still not been granted by Houthi authorities, although they have expressed their intent to allow a UN team on board in principle.  

“A UN technical team should be given all necessary means to assess the dilapidated tanker and conclusively avert the threat of a spill from the dilapidated tanker”, said Marcos Orellana, UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics and Human Rights. 

Catastrophe in waiting 

Since the late 1980s, the Safer had been used as a storage vessel for oil and now threatens Yemen and the Red Sea with ecological catastrophe, according to the UN rights expert.  

“If this ship were to break up, a spill could decimate livelihoods of local coastal communities, biodiversity in the region, and heavily impact shipping routes in the Red Sea”, stressed Mr. Orellana.  

“It is vital that a UN technical team be permitted to board the FSO Safer if we are to have any hope of preventing the threat of a spill that could be four times worse than the historic Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, in 1989”. 

‘A tragedy in the making’ 

Citing the devastating explosion at the port of Beirut in Lebanon last August, the UN expert asked: “Has the world learned nothing?” 

“Surely the dangers of mishandling hazardous substances are now evident”, he flagged. 

Although the Government of Yemen and Houthi authorities formally requested UN assistance with the Safer tanker in March of 2018, more than two years on, the team has not been deployed because the necessary approvals have not yet been granted. 

“This is a tragedy in the making and it must be prevented at all costs from hitting the people of Yemen”, the expert said. “They have suffered enough”. 

Special Rapporteurs are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation. The positions are honorary, and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.

 

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Time is fast running out for getting a UN team of experts aboard the Yemeni oil storage vessel Safer, before it spills its cargo of 1.148 million barrels of light crude oil into the Red Sea, triggering what would likely be a massive environmental and economic catastrophe, the Security Council heard on Wednesday.