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Action sought to prevent ‘catastrophic’ oil-tanker disaster in Yemen

21 August 2020

Conflict and Environment Observatory

INTERNATIONAL Christian bodies are urging action to prevent accidents resulting from the neglect of dangerous materials, such as the recent devastating explosion at an unsupervised store of chemicals in Beirut (News, 7 August).

Another potential source of devastation is a loaded and neglected oil tanker anchored in the Red Sea off the Yemeni coast. The floating storage vessel, Safer, has had no maintenance since the start of the war in Yemen in 2015, and is in a state of creeping deterioration.

The co-ordinator of the Anglican Communion Environmental Network, Canon Rachel Mash, referring to “the decaying oil tanker off Yemen”, wondered, “as it rusts, what the impact will be on marine and human life. As Anglicans, we are called to strive to maintain the integrity of creation and we must put pressure on international bodies to protect communities from environmental disasters.”

According to the United Nations, the Safer, which was built in the 1970s, has been used as a storage vessel for several decades. It lies 37 miles north of Hodeida port, which is controlled by the rebel Houthi movement. The group has not allowed the UN to inspect the ship or arrange for the offloading of its cargo (News, 24 July). The UN says that the vessel began leaking last year and that there is now the risk of “a major oil spill, explosion or fire that would have catastrophic environmental and humanitarian consequences for Yemen and the region”.

The UN secretary-general, António Guterres, said last week that the potential oil slick would not only “severely harm Red Sea ecosystems relied on by 30 million people across the region, but also force Hodeida port to be closed for months”. Hodeida is the main cargo entry point for a population already suffering from chronic shortages of food, medicine, and other essentials.

The UN is urging the Houthi leadership to allow immediate action to be taken, aware that the ship’s cargo of 1.15 million barrels of crude oil is four times bigger than the cargo spilled from the Exxon Valdez, off Alaska, in 1989.

The director of science and conservation at the Christian environmental agency A Rocha International, Dr Jeremy Lindsell, said: “A spill in the waters off Yemen could threaten the livelihoods of some of the most beleaguered people on earth, ill able to deal with the consequences.” It was the duty of Christians, he continued, to “face the task of caring for creation — which, yes, sometimes means highlighting danger ahead”. Doing so was “to be working as God would have us work”.

In the view of the Anglican Communion Office’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Jack Palmer-White, “environmental and ecological disasters are an existential threat to peace and security, human rights, prosperity, and cultural and ecological preservation. Doing nothing is not an option.”

The internationally recognised Yemeni government wants the global community to pressure the Houthis and their Iranian backers to allow access to the abandoned tanker. The Foreign Minister, Mohammed al-Hadhrami, accused the rebels of using the vessel “as a bargaining chip in peace talks without considering the potential drastic consequences”.

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