Why extreme weather could be the next greatest threat to Yemen's future
The headline-grabbing earthquake in Morocco and the floods in Libya together claimed thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of lives. But these events also reminded the international community of what many residents of the Arab world already knew: natural disasters can inflict death at a moment’s notice.
Yemen, acknowledged by the news media far less than Libya and Morocco, offers one of the most prominent examples.
Even as Yemen’s slow-burning civil war has disappeared from the news of the day, the parallel crisis of extreme weather continues to batter a country more often spotlighted for the spectre of famine.
September provided a startling showcase of the ways that weather patterns can reshape Yemenis’ lives. On the 16th, Agence France-Presse reported that a combination of floods and lightning strikes had resulted in the deaths of eight civilians along the Red Sea coast of Hudaydah Governorate and an inland slice of Taiz Governorate. Compounding the immediate devastation, the floods wrecked dozens of houses in Taiz Governorate as well.
As jarring as these events may seem, they represent nothing new in Yemen. Citing the Food and Agriculture Organization and Yemeni journalists, Arab News concluded that lightning strikes had killed more than 90 Yemenis over the course of July and August; a single episode led to the deaths of a pair of children in Hudaydah Governorate, with other deaths occurring in the mountainous interiors of Amran, Hajjah, Mahwit, and Sanaa Governorates in the north. Many animals perished as well, with a shepherd dying alongside over 40 of her livestock.
Amid the mounting death toll, the suffering has gone on for the living. On September 6, the United Nations Population Fund, also known as the “UNFPA,” said in a press release that “climate change-fuelled extreme weather has displaced more than 200,000 people, many who have already been displaced for the second or third time due to the conflict.”
The UNFPA added that an ensuing round of heavy rains could impact another two million internally displaced people in half of Yemen’s 22 governorates, among 21.6 Yemenis in need of humanitarian aid.
"Yemen is facing one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world due to a combination of prolonged conflict, economic crisis and recurrent climate change-related natural hazards”
The challenge of addressing Yemen’s extreme weather has as much to do with politics as with science. Rival governments rule the country — Iranian-backed militants known as the Houthis hold the north, including the capital of Sanaa, while a Saudi-sponsored regime controls the south from Yemen’s second city of Aden.
The competing power centers compound the difficulty of a comprehensive response. The Houthis, for example, exercise authority over the areas of Hudaydah Governorate hit by lightning in September, whereas the flood-induced destruction of that month struck a portion of Taiz Governorate overseen by the Aden government.
Notwithstanding these intractable obstacles, Yemeni and foreign experts alike are working to draw attention to the costs for Yemen of inaction on climate change and extreme weather.
“Over the past half-century, temperatures in Yemen have risen by an average of 1.8°C, with the potential for a further 3.3°C increase by 2060,” noted an August report by the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies. “This rise in temperature has been accompanied by an increase in extreme weather events such as cyclones, heavy rains, and floods.”
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, for its part, put out its own fact sheet this summer warning, “Yemen is facing one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world due to a combination of prolonged conflict, economic crisis and recurrent climate change-related natural hazards.”
Preliminary solutions are coming from aid agencies in Yemen and overseas. After the spate of lightning strikes in July and August, the Yemen Red Crescent Society encouraged residents in affected regions to take several steps during thunderstorms, such as keeping indoors, staying away from trees, turning off cell phones and the Internet, and unplugging chargers and solar panels — on which many Yemenis depend for electricity.
The UN, meanwhile, indicated in its September 6 press release that it had given survivors of floods “ready to eat meals from the World Food Programme, hygiene kits from UNICEF, and dignity kits for women and girls from UNFPA” in an initiative supported by the European Union and the United States.
A longer-term response will require forward-looking investments in Yemen’s ailing infrastructure, with Libya serving as a cautionary tale.
Competition between Libya’s own dueling governments hindered maintenance of two aging dams near the port of Derna, leading to September’s deadly floods when heavy rains caused the dams to collapse and wash the city away.
Rainfall already caused the collapse of a dam in Mahwit Governorate earlier this year, killing four, while an ancient dam in Marib Governorate has come under strain in recent years from floods that swept away homes. Aid agencies are reacting to these natural disasters, not stopping them.
At key moments, the fractious groups involved in Yemen's civil war have come together to address environmental issues. The best example came with this year’s landmark deal to drain and scrap an oil tanker before it could leak its contents into the Red Sea.
Tackling the scourge of Yemen’s extreme weather, and the toll that it has exacted on the country’s infrastructure, will require a similar level of collaboration. Yet hints of that effort have yet to materialise.