US warns of Yemen environmental disaster

By Nabil Abdullah al-Tamimi in Aden

A picture taken September 26th, 2019 shows the Yemeni flagged oil tanker Rudeef GNA sinking in the waters off Aden. [Saleh al-Obeidi/AFP]

A picture taken September 26th, 2019 shows the Yemeni flagged oil tanker Rudeef GNA sinking in the waters off Aden. [Saleh al-Obeidi/AFP]

The US has once again urged the Iran-backed Houthis (Ansarallah) to honour their commitments and facilitate a UN mission that aims to prevent an environmental, humanitarian and economic disaster in the Red Sea.

The UN team needs immediate access to the corroding Safer floating storage and offloading (FSO) terminal, moored off Ras Isa port in Houthi-controlled al-Hodeidah province, which contains at least 1.14 million barrels of crude oil.

If vital deferred maintenance is not carried out, and the vessel's cargo cannot be offloaded before it sinks, environmental disaster could ensue.

No maintenance has been carried out in five years, because the Houthis have not given access to a UN team of experts to conduct an assessment.

In a Saturday (August 8th) social media post, the White House National Security Council (NSC) stressed the urgency of the matter.

"The Houthis have failed to follow through on their agreement to allow a UN team onto the Safer," the NSC said. "They are courting environmental and humanitarian disaster by obstructing and delaying."

"For the good of Yemen and the region, the Houthis must allow the UN aboard the Safer," the NSC said.

Previously, in a July 16th social media post, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned of a potential environmental and economic disaster in the event of an oil spill, and urged Houthis to live up to their commitments.

"Imagine over one million barrels of oil seeping into the Red Sea -- ports unusable, fisheries decimated, Yemeni people without critical aid, and imports severed," he said.

"We call on the Houthis to live up to their commitments and facilitate UN assessments of the Safer oil tanker now," Pompeo said.

Ahead of a July 16th UN Security Council session to discuss the Safe issue, the Houthis agreed to allow a UN team to conduct assessment and maintenance.

But they later backed down on their promise.

On June 29th, the UN Security Council urged the Houthis to give unconditional access to the tanker to UN technical experts to assess its current condition.

'Act fast to resolve situation'

Last week, following the blasts in Beirut, Yemen's Information Minister Muammar al-Eryani again warned of the dangers if the tanker sinks, leaks or explodes and of the ensuing human, economic and environmental losses.

"The massive blast at Beirut port and the huge human losses and catastrophic damages it caused to Lebanon's economy and environment reminds us of the ticking time bomb Safer," he said August 5th.

He accused the Houthis of using the terminal as a bargaining chip.

"The Iran-backed Houthis are exploiting the crisis and preventing the maintenance or unloading of Safer without any regard to the potential dangers to civilians' lives, infrastructure, economy and environment," al-Eryani said.

He urged the international community to pressure the Houthis and to act fast to resolve the situation, before it is too late.

"The international community must pass binding resolutions and threaten sanctions in the event that the Houthis do not allow a UN team to assess the tanker," said Deputy Minister of Human Rights Nabil Abdul Hafeez.

Political analyst Faisal Ahmed told Al-Mashareq the Houthis are trying to leverage the Safer and make its cargo part of the political settlement solutions.

"They want to support their own position and that of Iran in alleviating pressures resulting from sanctions imposed on it," he said.

"The Houthis will not allow a UN team to assess Safer unless the Security Council imposes sanctions," he said, adding that unless swift action is taken, the world will wake up to a catastrophe many times bigger than the Beirut blasts.

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