LONDON: Human Rights Watch (HRW) has condemned Houthi authorities’ refusal to allow the UN access to a decaying oil tanker off Yemen’s coast, and repeated warnings that an oil leak would have “catastrophic environmental and humanitarian” consequences for millions of Yemenis.
The tanker could spill over a million barrels of oil into the Red Sea just 5 miles off the Yemeni coast.
Despite this risk, HRW on Monday said the Houthis are “stonewalling” UN attempts to board the ship and assess the danger it poses.
“The Houthi authorities are recklessly delaying UN experts’ access to the deteriorating oil tanker that threatens to destroy entire ecosystems and demolish the livelihoods of millions of people already suffering from Yemen’s war,” said Gerry Simpson, associate crisis and conflict director at HRW.
“The UN’s top experts are on standby to prevent the worst and should immediately be allowed on board the vessel.”
Fears of an explosion and ensuing oil spill from the tanker were heightened in May when seawater entered the engine room. The leak was fixed but the incident highlighted the urgency of the situation.
Both HRW and the UN have warned repeatedly of the devastating impact that a spill from the tanker would have on the Yemeni people.
In July, the head of the UN’s environmental agency said a spill could destroy the Red Sea ecosystems upon which almost 30 million people depend, including at least 125,000 Yemeni fishermen and 1.6 million people in their communities who already rely heavily on humanitarian aid.
It would also destroy 500 sq. km of agricultural land used by about 3 million Yemeni farmers, the UN said, as well as pollute 8,000 water wells and create harmful levels of air pollutants for over 8 million people.
A spill of such magnitude would also shut down Hodeida and Saleef ports for up to six months, seriously undermining Yemen’s ability to import 90 percent of its food and other essential aid and commercial commodities.
“A spill could also cripple one of the world’s busiest commercial shipping routes through the Red Sea, which accounts for about 10 percent of world trade,” HRW said.
The potential impact of a spill from the oil tanker is compounded by the ongoing conflict in Yemen, which began when Iran-backed Houthi rebels overran the capital Sanaa in 2015, resulting in what the UN has called the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”