Hadil al-Mowafak

Yemen’s Forgotten Environmental Crisis Can Further Complicate Peacebuilding Efforts

December 2021

The peace and security of Yemen is increasingly threatened by waning environmental stability. Dwindling water resources, changing weather patterns, and worsening soil, water, and air quality are some of the major environmental challenges facing the country today. Although some of these problems are caused by external actions outside the control of Yemenis, such as climate change, most are the result of human activities within Yemen, including widespread environmental pollution and the poor management and over-exploitation of natural resources. Many of these problems are exacerbated by the ongoing conflict, especially given the collapse of Yemen’s central government along with the institutions responsible for environmental protection and resource management.

Just as the ongoing conflict exacerbates environmental problems, these problems in turn are fueling the conflict. The deteriorating environment has for a long time been a source of stress in Yemeni society. One key example is the way that water shortages are driving competition for resources, including distribution of and access to water and arable land. Although water stress is often the focus of environmental debates on Yemen, undoubtedly other environmental stressors, such as deforestation, poaching, and pollution linked to military activities, are an equally important part of the problem. Societal tensions due to environmental problems are likely to increase as the climate crisis deepens, especially given the limited adaptive capacity of Yemeni society. For example, climate-induced flash floods have further triggered new waves of internal displacement, with many people moving to areas where natural resources are already under stress, which in turn is likely to become a vector for tensions in the future.1

Yet, despite the severity of the environmental crisis, it has not been given the attention it deserves in current United Nations (UN) led peacebuilding efforts. In part, this is due to the focus on the political and security dimensions of the conflict. Fortunately, the new UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, has recognized the need for a comprehensive approach to the peace process, which would take a broader set of issues into account.2 However, to set a course for lasting peace, an understanding of all the dynamics at play is needed. This includes assessing the impacts of environmental factors on the stability of the country and the potential for environmental issues to be used as a tool for peace. Only once such an understanding is developed can the UN and other actors begin to address the root causes of the ongoing conflict, rather than just mitigating its effects. As such, it is essential that environmental considerations are integrated into peacebuilding efforts in Yemen, including the ceasefire process.

The timing of this research is important, as the Office of the UN’s Special Envoy for Yemen is currently in the process of drafting a new ceasefire proposal that would be the basis for renewed peace negotiations. It is hoped that this proposal will be more inclusive and address a wider range of issues than previous agreements. Involving civil society actors, including environmental organizations and experts, in the design stage of a ceasefire and subsequent peace negotiations is key. This could help the mediator understand the complex and interconnected nature of the conflict and ensure that all factors that contribute to the fragility of peace are taken into account. Additionally, this could also offer an opportunity for Yemenis to have a say in how the environment is safeguarded and how natural resources are used and managed, including the development of sustainable livelihoods. In particular, those who have been most affected or displaced by environmental issues and the ongoing conflict should be involved in this process.

Accordingly, this research aims to highlight the interconnected nature of environmental problems and conflict in Yemen, in order to pave the way for a more holistic and inclusive peace process. It is based on 21 interviews with grassroots environmental organizations across five geographical areas: Taiz, Aden, Sana’a, Hadhramaut, and Hodeidah. As the research findings show, each governorate has its own unique set of environmental problems, which are in part linked to its specific climate and topographic features. Hence, addressing these problems requires an approach that is tailored to the geographical and environmental specificities of each governorate. It also necessitates paying particular attention to the needs and priorities of local communities as they relate to the environment, including by empowering local authorities and environmental groups.

Environmental stressors are exacerbating pre-existing socio-political grievances

Although the conflict in Yemen is often portrayed in terms of a sectarian, political, or regional divide, the underlying causes of the conflict are more complex. Tensions between different factions in Yemen have been mounting for years, with issues such as economic inequality, scarce resources, and limited access to public services increasingly taking on a political dimension. Although environmental issues may not have caused the emergence of today’s conflict on their own, they have served as an aggravating factor for pre-existing social grievances. For example, it is believed that local disputes over religious endowment (waqf) lands and competition for water resources in Sa’dah governorate contributed to the outbreak of the first Sa’dah war in 2004.3 According to Abdul Rahman al-Eryani, Yemen’s former minister of water and environment, the depletion of aquifers in Sa’dah region has turned one of Yemen’s richest areas for growing grapes, pomegranates, and oranges into barren land, thus enabling the Houthis to recruit young unemployed farmers into their movement.4 Similarly, grievances over land distribution have long been a major source of tension in southern Yemen. The confiscation of land by northern elites after the war of 1994 and the government’s failure to initiate effective land reforms helped to fuel calls for secession.5

In Yemen, land and water disputes are closely connected. In a country with scarce water resources and inequitable water distribution, control over land is essential for accessing water. This is because in most areas the two main water resources are surface water flows and groundwater aquifers, especially given low levels of rainfall in the country.6 In light of this, access to water is often determined by land ownership, where upstream users have priority to use surface water flows, and where the digging of wells happens predominately on private land.7

In the absence of effective government regulation and stringent enforcement of laws, the potential for conflict over water and land will continue to rise in Yemen, with communities competing to secure access to livelihood-driving infrastructure. In one case mentioned by research respondents, the fight over access to water between the two villages of Quradah and Al-Marzooh in Taiz lasted for 13 years. The perceived unfairness in the distribution of water from a shared water tank, ignited by a government intervention that neglected to consult all relevant stakeholders, was at the heart of this conflict, which the government failed to resolve over the years.8 To quell the fuse of war, President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi’s government in 2013 had to deploy around 60 military vehicles, which according to observers could control an entire city.9 The potential for larger scale conflict will only increase as climate change-induced droughts and rising temperatures push more people to compete over sparse natural resources, especially given the already high levels of social and political tensions in the country.

Already, government officials and non-state armed groups are exploiting natural resources with greater ease and impunity in the absence of effective and reliable rule of law institutions. For instance, research respondents report how local armed groups, including Islah-affiliated militia, in Taiz are heavily engaged in unlawful land seizures and the extraction and appropriation of groundwater. This trend has also been observed in Houthi-controlled Sana’a. Even in Hadhramaut, which is relatively more stable, research respondents highlight the illegal occupation of natural reserves and forests by local armed groups as a major threat to the integrity of these areas. They also note the high potential for the emergence of conflict over control of these lands among military forces and local tribes in the governorate. Indeed, the proliferation of non-state armed groups across the country has made it difficult to enforce any form of governance or laws, including those that relate to environmental protection. The political division within state institutions has also made it more difficult for existing environmental institutions, such as Yemen’s Ministries of Water and Environment or the Environmental Protection Agency, to collaborate at the governorate level in response to environmental issues.

The Conflict Is Leaving a High Environmental Cost

The ongoing conflict in Yemen is taking a toll on the environment, with serious consequences for human health and food security. Along with the destabilization of government institutions and the breakdown of law and order, the conflict has resulted in large-scale damage to critical environmental infrastructure. While the Saudi Arabia-United Arab Emirates (UAE) led coalition has bombed sanitation and freshwater infrastructure, including dams, reservoirs, and desalination plants,10 Houthis have also been responsible for similar damage, such as the destruction of water pipelines in Hodeidah due to landmines they have planted.11 This has contributed to the interruption of water supplies for millions of people and the spread of water-borne diseases, such as cholera, with over 2.5 million suspected cases already documented.12 The armed violence has also rendered large swaths of agricultural land unusable, further exacerbating the food security crisis.13 This is particularly concerning as over half of the population is facing hunger, with more than 16 million people acutely food insecure.14

Research respondents have also identified other conflict-induced threats to the environment, and human health, that need further documentation and an effective and timely response. These include the rampant and indiscriminate use of explosive materials by the warring parties, leaving high levels of hazardous waste and air pollutants that are seriously damaging local ecosystems. For example, the use of explosive weapons in heavily populated areas not only poses risks to civilians but could also contaminate the environment by releasing thick clouds of smoke containing hazardous toxins, such as PAHs, dioxins and furans, which have long-term impacts on human health.15 The use of unexploded weapons, such as landmines, cluster munitions, and improvised explosive devices, particularly poses a challenge to environmental cleanup efforts, as they also often contain hazardous materials and are difficult and costly to detect and safely remove. These ‘explosive remnants of war’, including Houthi-planted landmines16 and the coalition’s unexploded cluster munitions,17 have since obstructed access to much-needed agricultural fields, severely harming farmers’ ability to till their soil, therefore risking rendering their fields infertile for years to come.

The collapse of environmental governance and management structures has also allowed for the proliferation of environmentally harmful activities, such as deforestation and poaching. Research respondents note that reliance on firewood has increased in recent years as a way to cope with fuel shortages caused by the conflict. This increased demand for firewood has led to widespread deforestation, as people are illegally cutting down trees at an alarming rate in order to meet household energy needs. To illustrate the scale of the damage, a recent government survey found that more than 860,000 trees a year are being cut down to supply Sana’a’s 722 bakeries alone, the equivalent of 213 square km (82 sq miles) of the 3.3% forest area in Yemen.18 The pressure on vegetation cover and trees is not only felt in urban areas but also reported in protected areas, such as Jabel Bura’a National Park, which was designated as a biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 2011.19 An investigation by Holm Akhdar also highlights the increase in illegal poaching and hunting of rare wildlife, including the Arabian leopard, the cheetah, and the Arab mountain gazelle.20 These animals, and others, have been classified in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List as endangered species, where they are currently at risk of complete extinction in Yemen.21 Hence, in the absence of proper policies and controls, Yemen’s flora and fauna will be increasingly threatened in the years ahead, further compounding the ecological and environmental crisis.

In addition to widespread damage to the environment, a progressive deterioration of livelihoods is also taking place, with Yemen’s agricultural and fishing sectors being severely impacted. Since the war started in 2014, nearly 4 million people were forced to flee their homes, many of whom were farmers. This has led to a displacement of people away from their traditional livelihoods and towards unsustainable coping mechanisms, such as the over reliance on humanitarian aid.22 According to the International Organization for Migration, around 73 percent of the displaced population in Al Dhale’e governorate are farmers who were driven from their lands and unable to find work.23 The resulting agricultural land abandonment has in turn inflicted further damage to the country’s food production capacity. Similarly, a recent investigative report by Deutsche Welle (DW) highlights the war’s impact on another vulnerable community: Yemen’s fishermen. The DW report reveals that the Saudi-UAE led coalition issued restrictions on fishing in certain areas, forcing Yemeni fishermen into the shallows where they cannot make a catch. This has deprived fishermen of their only source of livelihood and has since led to a drastic decline in catches.24 Human Rights Watch have documented other security threats to fishermen in the Red Sea, such as being attacked and shot at by the Saudi-UAE led coalition, and detained (and tortured) in Saudi prisons.25

Research respondents also brought up the case of the FSO Safer tanker, which epitomizes how the environment has become a pawn in the larger geopolitical dynamics of the conflict. Moored off Yemen’s west coast, the decaying tanker is thought to contain more than a million barrels of oil at risk of spilling into the Red Sea if left without maintenance. Ever since the major threats posed by the tanker became known, the UN has proposed to send a maintenance team to conduct a checkup and remove the oil. However, this dispute has since evolved into a political standoff between the Houthis, who control the area around the tanker, and the internationally recognized government (IRG) of Yemen, further entrenched by regional tensions. This deadlock has been mainly due to disagreements over the distribution of revenues from the sale of oil, with Houthis using this as a bargaining chip to gain political concessions.26 Today, the Safer tanker remains in place without the necessary checkup and oil removal, thus posing severe risks of an oil spill that could have catastrophic consequences for the environment and local communities. Indeed, the Safer case highlights the fate of Yemen’s environment in a protracted conflict, characterized by the scramble for resources and the ever-growing militarization of society, with the increasing dominance of militias over decision-making processes.

Conflict Over Resources Is Fueling the War Economy

The territorial make-up of Yemen offers further explanations for the environmental impacts of the war. Yemen has a diverse geographical landscape that contains rich natural resources, including oil and gas reserves. The most economically viable oilfields are found in the southern and eastern parts of the country, including Hadhramaut, Shabwah, and Marib. Since the conflict started, these resources have become a major source of contention and have been at the heart of a power struggle. At the time of writing, forces loyal to the IRG are leading an offensive in Yemen’s southern province of Shabwah in an effort to wrest control of strategic energy-rich fields from Houthis.27 At the same time, the Houthis’ current military campaign to seize Marib governorate is largely aimed at controlling its rich oil resources.28 This conflict over resources and the increase in oil and gas smuggling (despite a de facto blockade) is not only exacerbating environmental problems but also fueling the war economy.29

Regional actors have been major beneficiaries of the war economy as well, with a high cost to the environment. In particular, the UAE was able to establish control over the port of Aden and other southern coastal areas, securing a strong foothold in Yemen’s economy and gaining access to its critical seaports and oilfields. In fact, the UAE’s geopolitical ambitions in Yemen can be clearly seen in the strategic deployment of its UAE-backed militias, ensuring control over the “port cities of Aden, Mukalla, Mokha, and Bi’r Ali, as well as the gas hub of Balhaf, the oil fields of Masila, and the export terminal at Shihr”.30 Perhaps one of the major vexing issues for many Yemenis, as confirmed by research respondents, has been UAE’s occupation of the Yemeni island of Socotra, which it currently controls through its loyal Southern Transitional Council forces. As noted by research respondents, this occupation is intertwined with an environmental crisis due to UAE’s military bases and major infrastructure projects, which are causing severe damage to the island’s unique ecosystem. According to Socotra’s governor, Ramzi Mahroos, the UAE has been selling Socotra’s land to investors without the consent of the Yemeni government, despite a government decree banning the sale of any land on the island. This includes 150,000 square meters of land on the Dixam plateau, recognized as a protected area in the center of the island.31 A report by Holm Akhdar also describes a wide range of environmental transgressions, including overfishing, illegal trade in endemic species, increased waste, and infringing on the island’s cultural fabric.32

The Climate Time Bomb Is Ticking, Yet Response Is Weak

The impacts of climate change are no longer a future threat but are already a reality for millions of Yemenis. In the past few years, Yemen has experienced a range of climate-induced shocks, including flash floods, droughts, and unprecedented cyclones.33 These shocks have had a devastating impact on the population, exacerbating an already fragile humanitarian situation. Recent research by CARPO found that nearly half a million people were directly affected by the 2020 torrential rains and the resultant flooding, many of whom were already displaced due to the conflict. The recorded damage to agricultural lands, public infrastructure, and private property is likely to cost Yemen more than it can afford, while disproportionately impacting the most vulnerable groups.34

What makes things even more precarious is that Yemen is not only one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, but it is also among the least equipped to cope with its impacts.35 The country already suffers from a lack of basic infrastructure and services, which have been further degraded by years of conflict. Although the Yemeni government has been aware of the impending climate crisis for some time now, its response has been weak and insufficient. With the central government largely incapacitated by political fragmentation, local authorities are struggling to cope with the situation. One research respondent explained that the severe lack of funding and the non-payment of salaries are rendering local authorities virtually powerless to act. In fact, he noted an increasing commercialization and corporatization of water and electrical utilities since the outbreak of conflict, with on-going discussions of commercializing the waste management services currently offered by the government’s Cleaning and Improvement Fund. This trend is likely to solve some of the problems associated with the lack of resources, but at the expense of further deepening existing inequalities between urban and rural areas and between rich and poor. Another research respondent pointed out that the current political divisions and fragmentation of authority, especially in Aden where two political opponents are competing for control, have resulted in a situation where “everybody is looking out for their own interests”, to the detriment of responding to the needs of the whole society.

Although the international community has committed itself to sustainable development goals, it has yet to take serious steps to address Yemen’s heightened vulnerability to climate change. The country has been hit hard by climate-induced natural disasters in recent years, but it has received little support from the international community. One research respondent noted that Yemen Humanitarian and Emergency Response Plans have mostly focused on humanitarian aid and have neglected the long-term environmental and climate interventions that are needed to address the underlying causes of vulnerability. In addition, many donors remain reluctant to finance long-term projects in Yemen, especially given the high levels of insecurity. As one interviewee explained, “INGOs [international non-governmental organizations] would rather provide aid and water services for the displaced for three months than build their capacities so that they can be self-sufficient in the long term”. He also notes a lack of coordination between local authorities and international organizations working on environmental and humanitarian response, which is undoubtedly impeding the effectiveness and sustainability of these activities. This point was also confirmed in the CARPO research, which mentioned that local and international NGOs frequently “bypass the local councils as an implementation mechanism”.36 Yet, research respondents called for increased coordination with and support to local authorities in order to enable them to better respond to the needs of their communities, a process that can be facilitated through the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation.

In the absence of a strong and effective response from the government, civil society and local communities, along with INGOs, have been taking the lead in responding to environmental problems, and to a lesser degree to the impact of climate change. Yet, as one research respondent emphasizes, civil society’s efforts are no match for the scale of the problem. “This requires a lot of resources, but Yemeni civil society is severely underfunded and does not have the capacity to do this alone.” The lack of resources – financial, human, and technical – is indeed a significant challenge for both local authorities and civil society actors, making it nearly impossible for them to mount an adequate response to the challenges posed by climate change. To help address this, some research respondents suggested linking the work of local civil society with that of INGOs to create synergies and to share resources. They called for more coordination between the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation, which is the main coordinator for international assistance in Yemen, and the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, which mainly works with civil society. This would help to ensure that both ministries are aware of the activities of each other and can better connect local civil society with INGOs, thereby empowering local communities to respond more adequately to their own needs. More awareness-raising about the effects of climate change on Yemen is also required, not only within the general public but also within civil society circles, as few local organizations are currently working on the issue.

The Way Forward

The Yemeni people are paying the price of a conflict that is not of their making. The escalation of the conflict and the increasing militarization of society have had a devastating impact on the population, exacerbating an already fragile humanitarian situation. The environment too is paying a heavy price, with the risk of an oil spill from the Safer tanker only one example of the many dangers posed to Yemen’s ecosystems. If the international community and local decision-makers fail to address the root causes of Yemen’s conflict and to find a sustainable resolution to the current crisis, the country will continue experiencing further deterioration in environmental conditions and increased resource-based conflicts.

Within this context, the current UN-led efforts to restart peace talks are critical to avert further escalation of the conflict and to reduce its economic and environmental impacts on Yemeni society. In this regard, involving local civil society actors in this process, as well as in the design and implementation of development plans, is essential to ensure that local people have a say in determining their future. This is especially important in the current context, when so many Yemenis feel that their country’s wealth and natural resources are being exploited by armed groups and foreign powers, further deepening inequalities. Hence, empowering local communities through greater inclusion in decision-making and by giving them the tools they need to address the challenges posed by climate change is a vital part of building a peaceful and sustainable future for Yemen.

At the same time, international donors need to increase their support for environmental programs that can help mitigate the effects of climate change and other environmental shocks. However, they need to do that by shifting their focus away from short-term responses to natural disasters and emergencies and instead adopt a longer-term perspective that takes into account the interconnectedness between the environment, climate change, conflict, and human security. This should include support for local civil society organizations, which are best placed to carry out such work on the ground. Only a more concerted and coordinated response to the country’s environmental needs, one that is based on a participatory approach that empowers local authorities and civil society to cope more effectively with the effects of climate change, conflict, and economic hardships, can provide a sustainable path forward for Yemen.

Hadil Al-Mowafak became a Yemen Policy Center Research Fellow in 2020. In 2015, she joined Mwatana Organization as a researcher of human rights violations, documenting cases of civilian casualties, child soldiers, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, and restrictions on journalistic freedoms. She holds a B.A in Political Science from Stanford University (2020).

Supported with German Federal Foreign Office’s funds by IFA (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen), zivik Funding program.
Mareike Transfeld
Copy editors:
Jatinder Padda
Sana’a, Yemen. April 15, 2020. A three-storey house collapsed due to heavy rain. Torrential rains and flash floods affected al-Sabeen and other neighbourhoods in the capital. Credit: Mohammed Mohammed
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