Up to 1.1 million barrels of oil could spill into the Red Sea, causing a disaster four times worse than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, the UN Security Council learned on Wednesday.
Time is running out to prevent a dilapidated oil tanker near Yemen from causing an “imminent environmental, economic and humanitarian disaster”, warned the head of the United Nations Environment Program, Inger Andersen.
The oil tanker belonging to the Yemeni government, FSO Safer, started to take water in May. If its oil spills, it could cause irreversible damage to the rich biodiversity of the Red Sea, including coral reefs and mangroves.
“Cleaning it up afterwards is not a viable option,” said the US ambassador. Kelly Craft.
The damage would also have serious economic consequences for at least 1.6 million Yemenis, said Mark Lowcock, chief of humanitarian affairs at the UN. “Essentially, every fishing community along the west coast of Yemen would see their livelihoods collapsed. “
Almost all of these at-risk communities are already in need of humanitarian aid due to the multi-year war in the poorest country in the Arab world, he added.
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The conflict, which began in 2014, saw Houthi Shiite rebels aligned with Iran attempt to overthrow the internationally recognized government by taking control of the capital Sanaa. A Saudi-led coalition has supported the government in the fight against the rebels.
The tanker was built in 1974 and has been regularly inspected by the United Nations. But it is moored in territory controlled by the Houthi militia, which blocked access to it.
Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the militia for blocking the UN mission.
“The Houthis must allow access before the time bomb explodes,” he said during a briefing.
United Nations agencies have sounded the alarm over the risk posed by the oil tanker for more than a year, Lowcock said on Wednesday.
Concerns intensified in May when a leak occurred in the engine room, creating a risk of explosion. Lowcock stated that the leak was relatively small and that the divers were able to repair and contain it. However “it is impossible to say how long it can last,” he added.
The UN has proposed a plan to repair the damage and allow the oil on board to be recovered and sold, providing income to local workers, according to the Yemeni government.
Yemen’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed Al-Hadhrami told the Security Council that the government had accepted the UN plan, but said that the Houthi militia was not cooperating.
Al-Hadhrami also warned that giving the Houthis access to the government-owned tanker “will not solve the problem, and it will once again allow them to divert the problem in the future, when the pressure is lifted.”
Lowcock said that even though the Houthis rejected the UN mission, the Houthi militia announced last week that they had changed positions.
However, he warned that the permits had been promised in August 2019 only to be canceled by the Houthis the day before the deployment.
Reuters contributed to this report