Environment

Yemen warns of Red Sea environmental disaster

By Nabil Abdullah al-Tamimi in Aden

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A Yemeni fisherman sails out to sea from the Red Sea port city of al-Hodeidah on June 11th, 2019. In a letter to the UN Security Council, Yemen's government has again warned that the corroding and neglected Safer floating storage and offloading terminal, moored off the coast nearby, is an environmental disaster waiting to happen. [STR/AFP]

Yemen's government has once again raised concerns that the Safer floating storage and offloading (FSO) terminal, which is moored off the Red Sea coast, will sink, causing an environmental catastrophe in the process.

The corroding FSO terminal contains at least 1.14 million barrels of crude oil, and is a disaster waiting to happen if the cargo it carries cannot be moved off the vessel before it sinks.

It is moored off the coast in an area of Yemen controlled by the Iran-backed Houthis (Ansarallah), and has become a political bargaining chip between the warring sides, with the Houthis refusing access unless their terms are met.

The government's latest warning was delivered in a Monday (June 1st) letter to to UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

In it, Yemen's Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Hadhrami noted that more than two years have passed since the government had warned of a potential disaster.

He also noted a potentially catastrophic new development, reporting that a pipe on the vessel has been punctured, causing seawater to leak into the engine room, and saying this might cause the terminal to sink.

The government has appealed to the UN to intervene, he said, but the Houthis are still refusing to give a UN team access to the terminal.

He stressed that the Yemeni government "has accepted all proposals and initiatives for resolving the issue, including the UN special envoy's latest proposal last April as part of humanitarian and economic measures".

Immediate access required

Al-Hadhrami urged the UN and the international community to pressure the Houthis to give immediate, unconditional access to a UN technical team.

The team must be allowed to conduct the necessary assessment and maintenance and to offload the stored oil in order to prevent a massive environmental and economic disaster, he said.

"I am surprised the international community has been so slow to take action to prevent a real disaster," political analyst Faisal Ahmed told Al-Mashareq.

"There are environmental and economic consequences to the countries that overlook the Red Sea and to the oil trade and global trade in general," he said. "This is in addition to the destruction of the marine environment."

"The sinking of the Safer terminal also will lead to the closure of al-Hodeidah port, and this means fuel shortages for 80% of Yemen's population," he noted.

"It will deprive the residents of coastal areas of fishing, which they rely on for their livelihoods," Ahmed said.

He confirmed the government has agreed to offload the tanker, sell the oil and use proceeds towards the payment of state employees' salaries.

"The Houthis had requested just this, but later backed down on it," he said. "This shows the extent of the Houthis' manipulation of this disaster."

The militia is attempting to use the situation as a bargaining chip with which "to pressure and threaten regional countries to serve Iran's interests", he added.

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