The UN on Monday described as “disappointing” the continuing demands by the Houthi militias in Yemen for guarantees before they will allow basic repairs and maintenance work to be carried out on a decaying oil tanker.
The Safer, a floating storage and offloading terminal, has been anchored in the Red Sea near the port of Hodeidah since the start of the war in Yemen more than five years ago. Virtually no maintenance has been carried out during that time and it contains 48 million gallons of oil.
The rusting vessel’s hull, equipment and systems have deteriorated so badly that there are growing fears it could spring a leak, explode or catch fire, causing an environmental disaster four times greater than the Exxon Valdez spill off the coast of Alaska in 1989, which remains the world’s worst in terms of damage to the environment.
Since 2019, the UN has been calling on the Houthis to allow a team of experts to access the ship, assess its condition and conduct initial repairs, warning that a leak would destroy Yemeni livelihoods, damage marine life and disrupt aid deliveries.
It could also disrupt commercial shipping in the Red Sea, which is one of the world’s busiest waterways and accounts for 10 percent of global trade.
Other countries along its coasts could also be affected, including Saudi Arabia, Djibouti and Eritrea. In November last year, the Houthis agreed to grant access to the ship.
However discussions about the logistics of this have dragged on.
“The big point of dispute, really, is that (the Houthis) want an agreement in advance to perform light maintenance, and they want the light maintenance activities to be mentioned in the (November 2020) mission plan,” Farhan Haq, a spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said during a press briefing on Monday, in response to a question from Arab News.
“We’re continuing to negotiate. We can’t provide those advanced guarantees (because of) the lack of safety aboard the ship. If it is safe, we are definitely willing to do light maintenance activities. First, we need to make sure it is safe.”
Haq told reporters in New York: “The Safer is a very dangerous site and advance guarantees before verifying conditions on board are not possible. That is why the November 2020 agreement explicitly conditions the light maintenance activities on the safety environment we find on board.”
The UN is eager to help, he added, but a safety assessment is necessary before teams can carry out basic maintenance work “that we hope will buy more time for a longer-term solution. We also remain open-minded regarding any other safe and quick solutions to the problem.”