If action is not taken to deal with a deteriorating oil tanker stranded off Yemen's coast there is a risk it could spill four times as much oil as the 1989 US Exxon Valdez disaster, UN says.

A handout satellite image released July 15, 2020 shows a close up view of FSO Safer oil tanker anchored off the marine terminal of Ras Isa, Yemen June 17, 2020.
A handout satellite image released July 15, 2020 shows a close up view of FSO Safer oil tanker anchored off the marine terminal of Ras Isa, Yemen June 17, 2020. (Reuters)

The United Nations has held an unusual session to express fears of "catastrophe" if a decaying oil tanker abandoned off Yemen's coast with 1.1 million barrels of crude on board ruptures into the Red Sea.

A breach of the 45-year-old FSO Safer, anchored off the port of Hudaida, would have disastrous results for marine life and tens of thousands of impoverished people who depend on fishing for their livelihood.

The UN Security Council said on Wednesday it had sent details of a plan for an inspection team to conduct light repairs and determine the next steps to the Houthi rebels, who control Hudaida, on Tuesday.

On Sunday, the UN said the rebels had agreed in principle to the assessment.

But they did the same in the summer of 2019, only to cancel a UN mission from Djibouti at the last minute.

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'Time is running out'

The tanker's "condition is deteriorating daily, increasing the potential for an oil spill," Inger Andersen, head of the United Nations Environment Programme, told the Council.

"Time is running out for us now to act in a coordinated manner to prevent a looming environmental, economic and humanitarian catastrophe," she said.

The Security Council issued a communique expressing its "deep alarm at the growing risk," and called on the Houthis to move ahead with granting access to the tanker "as soon as possible."

Effectively a floating storage platform, the Safer has had virtually no maintenance for five years since war broke out in the country where the Houthis have seized much of the north from the internationally recognised government.

The tanker could break up or explode, causing a disaster that experts have said could take up to 30 years for the area's ecology to recover from.

A leak in the engine room had been plugged in May, but the British mission to the UN insisted that "a permanent solution is urgently needed."

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Tanker could spill four times as much oil as Exxon Valdez 

UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock said he hoped a UN assessment mission would be carried out "within the next few weeks."

"I have briefed you 15 times over the last 15 months on the Safer tanker," he added, hinting at frustration over the lack of action.

"The Safer is carrying 1.1 million barrels of oil. That's about four times as much oil as was discharged in the Exxon Valdez disaster – a spill the world still talks about thirty years later," Lowcock said.

"The risk from the Safer is by no means strictly environmental, dreadful though the environmental impact would be. It is also a direct and severe threat to the well-being – and potentially the survival – of millions of Yemenis," Lowcock said.

A bargaining chip

Like other economic and aid issues in Yemen, the plight of the tanker has become a bargaining chip, with the Houthis accused of using the threat of disaster to secure control of the value of the cargo.

In June, the Houthis said they wanted guarantees the vessel would be repaired and that the value of the oil on board used to pay salaries of their employees.

But the Yemeni government has said the money for the oil should be used for health and humanitarian projects in the shattered country, which is again on the brink of famine after long years of conflict.

Hudaida port is a lifeline for northern Yemen, with 90 percent of all supplies coming through it.

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Source: TRTWorld and agencies