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UN urges Houthis to permit inspection of aging oil tanker

The Houthis, who control access to the FSO Safer, have prevented the UN from sending a technical team to assess the risk of a potential massive oil spill.
Hodeidah's port

The United Nations is again calling on Yemen’s Houthi rebels to cooperate with UN inspectors who need urgent access to a dilapidated oil tanker moored off the country’s Red Sea coast. 

The FSO Safer holds 1.1 million barrels of oil, enough to spill four times as much oil into the sea than was spilled from the Exxon Valdez tanker in 1989. Experts say that time is running out to prevent a massive spill, which would devastate biodiversity in the Red Sea, disrupt one of the world’s busiest commercial trade routes and deepen Yemen’s already dire humanitarian crisis. 

The Houthis, who are fighting a Saudi-led military coalition and Yemen's internationally recognized government, seized the FSO Safer from the state-run oil company in 2015. The Iran-aligned group hasn't performed maintenance on the vessel since and has repeatedly blocked UN efforts to send inspectors. 

Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Program, told the UN Security Council on Thursday that it is critical UN inspectors gain access to the vessel and assess the likelihood of a leak. If not, Anderson warned of the major economic, social and health impacts should the FSO Safer spill oil into the sea. 

“It is estimated that up to 670,000 people’s livelihoods could be impacted by a spill, and resulting in the damage to fisheries, to marine resources, coastal industries as well as to the economy and food imports,” Andersen said. 

The UN estimates that in a worst-case scenario, a spill would force a six-month closure of the Houthi-controlled Hodeidah port and cause a 200% spike in fuel costs. The cost of food, 90% of which Yemen imports, would double at a time when more than 20 million Yemenis are food insecure. 

“In the event of a fire or an explosion, around 4.8 million people in Yemen and 350,000 people in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia could be exposed to harmful levels of pollution within 24 to 36 hours,” Andersen said.

Reena Ghelani, operations director for the UN’s humanitarian office, told the Security Council that the Houthis have agreed to an inspection “in principle” but are “reluctant to provide the concrete assurances needed to proceed.”  

Ghelani said an expert team is on standby for when the Houthis give the green light, but that it will still take the experts several weeks to charter vessels, gather equipment and reach the Safer from Djibouti.

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