July 16 (UPI) -- A top United Nations official has warned that unless a disabled oil tanker moored off the coast of Yemen can be boarded and repaired quickly, a disastrous spill affecting 1.6 million Yemenis could result.
Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock told the U.N. Security Council Wednesday that 1.1 million barrels could spill out of the rusting supertanker FSO Safer -- an amount four times greater than that discharged during the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off the coast of Alaska.
"If a spill were to occur in the next two months, experts project that 1.6 million Yemenis would be directly affected," he said. "Essentially every fishing community along Yemen's west coast would see their livelihoods collapse and would suffer substantial economic losses.
"About 90 percent of people in these communities already need humanitarian assistance."
The plea came as the United Nations reported that the Yemeni economy is already "in tatters" and its institutions are facing "near-collapse" after more than five years of conflict. Famine conditions have resulted in 2 million Yemeni children suffering from acute malnutrition, Secretary-General António Guterres said this month.
The Safer, a 44-year-old supertanker owned by the Saudi-backed Yemen government, was seized by Houthi insurgents in 2015 off the coast of rebel-held territory while carrying more than 1 million gallons of light crude oil. It has remained moored at the spot near the port of Hudaydah since then.
The vessel sprung a leak in late May, flooding its engine room with seawater and threatening to spill its cargo. Though the leak was relatively small, divers dispatched by the ship's builder needed five days of round-the-clock underwater efforts to contain it.
Lowcock and U.N. Environment Program chief Inger Andersen each urged the international community to urgently work out a deal with Houthi rebels allowing a full team of U.N. technicians to board the rusting ship and assess risk of a spill.
"Despite the difficult operational context, no effort should be spared to first conduct a technical assessment and initial light repairs," Andersen told the Security Council. "In the longer term, she added, the best option will be to offload the oil from the ship and then tow it to a safe location for inspection and dismantling."
The rebels have stated they want to allow an international team to board the Safer, but have also set preconditions linking access to the ship with other issues related to the conflict, Lowcock said.