Ambassador Kelly Craft
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York, New York
July 15, 2020
Thank you, Christoph. Thank you, Mark, for I believe you said you have briefed us on 15 occasions, this might have been your 16th. I hope there is improvement before your 17th, but thank you for your patience and persistence.
Since March of 2015, the Safer oil tanker has been under Houthi control, and Houthi inaction has turned the Safer and its million-plus barrels of oil into a ticking time bomb. Any kind of ship that sits in the sea has to be regularly maintained. Without maintenance, rot sets in and the hull could breach. Volatile gasses accumulate that could lead to an explosion. Not only have the Houthis not maintained the Safer, they have not permitted the UN – or anyone else – access to assess the vessel and do what is necessary to eliminate the risk that has resulted from this Houthi obstructionism. And I believe, Secretary Pompeo stated on the 8th of July that if the Houthis do not grant us access, this is a ticking bomb that is going to explode.
As we have heard today, the Safer’s deterioration has become critical. Rust is spreading on the hull and throughout the ship, and onboard power and fire prevention systems have long passed failure. The Safer no longer has the equipment to suppress flammable gases, increasing the potential for explosion. The saltwater leak into the engine room in May further underlines the potential for oil to leak into the surrounding sea. Either way – explosion or leak – the result would be a huge environmental catastrophe – across the Red Sea and for the countries that border it.
The Red Sea is highly biodiverse, with coral reefs, coastal mangroves and many endemic species. Its geography, however, means it has restricted water circulation and fragile marine ecosystems, which make it especially vulnerable to oil pollution. Moreover, experts have noted that the 1.14 million barrels of oil in the Safer’s hold are Marib Light, a type of crude that mixes more easily with water, could penetrate to sub-surface water, making it even more difficult to clean up in case of a spill. These experts fear that if the Safer’s oil leaks into the Red Sea, it could form one of the largest recent oil spills in history.
Such a spill would have consequences not only for the environment but also for the human economies that rely on maritime activities, worsening the humanitarian and economic crises in Yemen. Ninety percent of Yemen’s commercial food is imported and eighty percent of the population is in need of humanitarian aid to survive. A prolonged oil spill or accident could hinder both these critical imports and humanitarian aid by making Red Sea ports unusable. This would put food and life-saving assistance further out of reach for vulnerable Yemenis, exacerbating what is already the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and significantly increasing the risk of famine in Yemen.
Experts at the Atlantic Council have said that the spill of the Safer’s oil could result in “desalinization plants contaminated, depriving tens of millions of people of access to clean drinking water; the loss of marine ecosystems that may be the key to saving the rest of the world’s coral from warming seas; a tangible impact on the global economy from the temporary closure of the Red Sea shipping lanes; armed conflict over basic necessities; and a downward spiral in an already very fragile area.”
If there were an oil spill, it is also unlikely that the consequences would be limited to Yemen. Five other member states have Red Sea coastlines. Experts describe the Red Sea as akin to a saltwater lagoon – one in which the seasonal currents could carry a slick north along the coast into Saudi Arabian waters, or to Hudaydah and beyond.
Within the interconnected Red Sea ecosystem, damage to Yemen’s coastal reefs could have far reaching effects on all Red Sea fisheries – from Egypt, to the Sudan, to Eritrea and Djibouti. These same Red Sea states joined together to express their concern over the Safer earlier this year – and they stand to be affected directly. We would do well to heed their warning.
Have no doubt that this would rank among the worst oil spills in history – and history would show that this was not a tragic accident, but an act no less deliberate and deserving of our condemnation than when Saddam Hussein’s forces set fire to Kuwaiti oil fields, causing lasting damage to Arabian Peninsula ecosystems. This region has seen its bounty of resources turned against it to destructive effect before – and we must not let the Houthis do it again. It is our collective duty to not allow this to happen.
There is no question how this situation came to be so dire – Houthi inaction and intransigence are solely responsible for the Safer’s grim situation. The Houthis alone have retained sole access to the tanker, and the Houthis alone are responsible for its decay. If there is a leak or, worse, an explosion, the Houthis will bear sole responsibility for any disaster, due to their cynical efforts to use the Safer as a bargaining chip for additional political and economic leverage.
Mark and Martin have briefed the Council each month on their active engagement with the Houthis to secure their acceptance of a UN-led technical mission to undertake an assessment and carry out initial repairs of the tanker. Yet month after month, as Mark has stated, there is no such mission. The UN has been very clear, as have many member states and multiple experts: the Houthis need to live up to their commitments and facilitate an assessment without further delay or preconditions.
We must prevent the catastrophe that an oil spill would be; cleaning it up afterwards is not a viable option. Even the best-case scenarios for an emergency response would only contain one-third of a spill – and that presumes advance planning and mustering resources that simply might not be possible or available.
Time is not on our side. With COVID-19 challenges consuming so many government and donor resources, and the current under-resourced status of maritime clean-up mechanisms in many of the Red Sea countries, it is utterly irresponsible not to do everything possible to prevent the worst outcome. We hope today’s discussions will serve as a wakeup call to the Houthis to cease their obstructionist and cynical tactics, and permit the UN technical teams immediate access to perform an assessment of the situation, and determine appropriate steps to mitigate the threat of an oil leak or explosion.