Risk of environmental disaster as Safer tanker decays in Yemen

The Safer oil tanker off Yemen’s Red Sea coast could trigger a national disaster if it explodes or spills its load. (File/Getty)
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Updated 30 March 2020

Risk of environmental disaster as Safer tanker decays in Yemen

  • UN ambassadors said an explosion or leak would close the port of Hodeidah for several months
  • A leak or explosion would also affect 1.7 million people working in the fishing industry and their families

RIYADH: Six Arab countries have filed a request to the UN to access the Safer oil tanker — filled with 138 million liters of Yemeni oil — to prevent an environmental disaster of drastic proportions.
The tanker’s decay in Hodeidah would cause an environmental disaster with dire economic and humanitarian consequences, threatening millions of residents in the Hodeidah governorate and the Red Sea riparian countries.
“It’s a great danger,” political analyst Dr. Hamdan Al-Shehri told Arab News. The tanker has been lying in the port of Ras Isa for five years without any maintenance.
UN ambassadors from Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen said in the letter that an explosion or leak from the Safer would close the port of Hodeidah for several months. This would halt critical imports and “could increase fuel prices by 800 percent and double the price of goods and food, resulting in more economic challenges for the people of Yemen,” they said.

 

 A leak or explosion would also affect 1.7 million people working in the fishing industry and their families, the six countries said.
Al-Shehri said: “The tanker is used as a strong-arm point by the Houthis. Using it from time to time and reaping its goods but denying access to the UN.”
He added that one of the main reasons the Houthis have kept the international community and the UN at bay is “if the tanker was maintained and fixed it would affect their revenue. But the Houthis do not keep their word and have lied over and over again to their benefit.”
On July 18, 2019, Mark Lowcock, the UN’s undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, told the UN Security Council that its assessment team had been denied the necessary permits by Houthi rebels who control the area.
The tanker could face two potential hazardous scenarios.There could be an explosion or leak, which could lead to one of the worst environmental disasters the world has seen. The spill would be four times worse than the oil spill of the Exxon Valdez off the coast of Alaska in 1989, where the region still has not fully recovered. The aftermath of a fire or explosion would prevent the recovery of nearshore species in nearly 25 years, 1.7 million people would need food aid as the closure of the port can create shortages.
Fuel prices would increase by 800 percent and double the price of goods and food, shifting operations to an already busy port of Aden.

“The Houthis have nothing to lose, to them … this is just an oil spill in the sea.”

Dr. Hamdan Al-Shehri

After the end of the Gulf War, the region suffered from damage caused by oil pollution in the waters off the Arabian Gulf. Marine life required many years to recover. In addition, it suffered from damage caused by oil fires to the health of many people in the region, after they were exposed to toxic fumes.
The second potential scenario would be a major fire. Some 3 million people in Hodeidah would be affected by toxic gases, four percent of productive agricultural lands in Yemen would be covered with dark clouds, destroying beans, fruits and vegetables that could cause an estimated loss of over $70 million. Humanitarian organizations would suspend their services in Hodeidah, cutting off services for 7 million people in need.
“The Houthis have nothing to lose, to them, in the end, this is just an oil is spill in the sea, they do not care about any dangers it poses whether on regional or international waters,” said Al-Shehri. “The Houthis want to blackmail the Yemenis, raise problems for them, steal the oil and sell it on the black market,” he said.
From a military perspective, the political analyst explained that at some point the tanker could be used as leverage. The spilt oil could be set ablaze to cause a devastating fire in the Red Sea, as revenge against the coalition.
“The international community is required to assume its responsibilities and exert maximum pressure on Houthi militias before the oil tanker causes the world’s biggest environmental and human disaster,” added Al-Shehri.
“If the international community does not interfere a severe backlash of two devastating scenarios will take place, an environmental disaster or major fire unleashed.
“The UN must take a firm, decisive and strong stance against the Houthis and stop appeasing them,” said Dr. Hamdan.

FASTFACTS

IN NUMBERS:

138 MILLION LITERS OF OIL in the deserted and neglected Safer oil tanker


Saudis head out as lockdown eases

Updated 29 May 2020

Saudis head out as lockdown eases

  • First day of phased reopening sees visitors flock to waterfronts and malls

JEDDAH/RIYADH: As the 24-hour-curfew period ended, residents of Saudi Arabia headed back outside on the first day of the government’s three-phase plan to transition back to normality after the COVID-19 pandemic.

But as people rushed to take advantage of the newly relaxed measures, streets quickly became crowded and several observers noticed that many were failing to observe social-distancing measures.

Prince Abdulrahman bin Mosaad tweeted: “For there to be traffic in the streets is natural after canceling the 24-hour curfew, but what’s abnormal and unbelievable is the amount of people underestimating the necessity of putting on a face mask and a pair of gloves and keeping a two-meter space between people crowding at stores. This is only the first day. Unfortunately, I don’t think Shawwal 29 (June 21) will be the day we go back to normal.”

In a follow-up tweet, Prince Abdulrahman reminded people that the pandemic does not have a cure or a vaccine yet, and wondered whether people would need to lose a loved one before they came to appreciate the severity of the situation.

University lecturer, Abdulfattah Al-Qahtani (@fattah53), agreed, tweeting: “Sadly, not many understand the dangers of the virus, and what they could be doing to their loved ones. It’s very simple; don’t go out unless it’s necessary. If you absolutely have to, follow precautionary measures from wearing a mask to keeping an acceptable distance between you and others.”

Abdulaziz Al-Omar (@11a_alomar) also replied with suggestions. “It’s important to monitor and penalize facilities and shops that do not follow precautionary regulations, as well as fines against those who don’t wear a mask and don’t keep their distance from others,” he tweeted.

The hashtag #JeddahNow was quickly trending on Twitter in response to the number of people leaving their homes unnecessarily.

A number of users suggested that individuals neglecting social distancing and going out in public without a mask and gloves would be “more afraid of a SR10,000 fine than they are of the pandemic.”

However, many thought that people were overreacting to the traffic around the city’s corniche.

Sa’ad Mughram (@saad_mghrm) tweeted: “Don’t blame people for traffic. There are families that have been pressed together for three months in small apartments and reef houses. It’s their right to go out and see the sky on a short car ride.”

He added: “Overcrowding stores needs to be addressed, but things can be dealt with calmly, without overreacting and perfectionism from some.”

Sadly, not many understand the dangers of the virus, and what they could be doing to their loved ones. 

Abdulfattah Al-Qahtani , University lecturer

Some hailed the efforts made by several popular stores around the Kingdom that are enforcing social distancing, such as Madinah’s Starbucks, where a photo circulating on social media showed people lined up with the recommended space between them, demonstrating what was described as “classy behavior.”

Abdullah Al-Humaid, (@abn_humaid) commented: “It’s wonderful to see such awareness displayed in our society. These are people maintaining social distancing while wearing gloves and face masks.”

Meanwhile, many headed onto the streets of Riyadh looking to regain a sense of normality. “Of course, I went out. I took my mom and sister and drove to the nearest mall to run some errands,” 26-year-old Sarah Al-Jasser told Arab News.

However, Al-Jasser said she was unable to enter the shops inside the mall because of long queues. “I was surprised that people were out this early. We were at the mall by 9:30 a.m. and didn’t expect it to be this crowded,” she said.

By 2:30 p.m. most shops and malls were already closed and empty of customers and shopkeepers, abiding by the 3 p.m. curfew.

Rayed Mustafa, 33, told Arab News he believes the situation is still unsafe: “Just because the country is opening up doesn’t mean it’s safe to go out.”  However, that did not stop him from leaving  the house. “I pulled an all-nighter, put on my face mask and gloves and hit the streets at 6:30 a.m. to cruise the city.”

He added that he stayed in his car and was merely hoping to get some fresh air for his mental well-being. “I’ve been confined in a very small apartment for over a month,” he said. “I needed that change of scenery.” 

He said he made sure to abide by the safety and health measures put in place by the Ministry of Health, and refrained from mingling with people.

Mustafa was taken aback by the number of people he saw on the streets. 

“One of the main streets in Riyadh was filled to the brim — some celebrating, others going out for coffee,” he added.

Billboards have been placed around the Kingdom reminding people to comply with the recommended precautions in order to ensure their safety.