A lethal legacy of the Yemen war

Summary: as a shaky truce continues to hold very little has been done to remove landmines and other unexploded ordinance scattered across a country riven by nearly a decade of war.

We thank our regular contributor Helen Lackner for today’s article. An expert on Yemen, Helen also works as a freelance rural development consultant with a particular interest in water among other environmental issues. SAQI Books has published the paperback edition with new material of her Yemen In Crisis, now subtitled Devastating Conflict, Fragile Hope. It is a seminal study of the war, what lies behind it and what needs to happen for it to end. In July 2022 Routledge published her latest book Yemen: Poverty and Conflict. Helen’s most recent Arab Digest podcast “Yemen in the Gaza war” is available here.

Landmines kill and injure civilians in affected countries for generations after the end of conflict. Yemen is no exception and the widespread use of this particularly obnoxious military tactic is yet another demonstration of warmongers’ total disregard for the safety of Yemeni children, women and men. Although the 6-months truce of 2022 remains partially active, deaths and injuries continue on a daily basis from landmines of different types laid between 2015 and 2022, and others left over from earlier internal conflicts. Various types of explosive ordnance [EO] continue to maim and kill, including decades-old UK cluster bombs which were dropped by Saudi-led coalition aircraft prior to 2022; these are particularly dangerous for children who pick up bomblets shaped and coloured like toys.

Yemen ratified the 1997 Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention before it came into force in March 1999 but this has not prevented either side in the current conflict from laying mines throughout the country. As is the case for other institutions, there are two separate national organisations, the Yemen Executive Mine Action Centre based in Aden with the Internationally Recognised Government [IRG] and in Sana’a it is the Huthis’ De Facto Authority [DFA.] Both are regulators and operators keen to mobilise international funding but neither has published its budget. For obvious reasons they do not cooperate with each other. Given the ongoing conflict and issues of trust and transparency, there are tensions in their relations with the foreign funded de-mining organisations despite the fact that mines threaten the daily lives of citizens, as recently noted by a Human Rights Watch report on Taiz region, one of many examples of the devastating impact these ordinances have for people of all ages.

Abdullah, 35, who lost both of his legs to a landmine while taking goats to graze, with his two children, Al-Shaqb, Yemen, April 27, 2024. [photo credit: Niku Jafarnia/HRW]
Abdullah, 35, who lost both of his legs to a landmine while taking goats to graze, with his two children, Al-Shaqb, Yemen, April 27, 2024. [photo credit: Niku Jafarnia/HRW]
There is no estimate, let alone accurate figure on the number of devices scattered across the country awaiting unsuspecting victims. Mine clearance organisations consider Yemen to be heavily contaminated. In the past ten years it had the third highest casualty rate in the world from mines and EO incidents, with 1349 civilian casualties between January and September 2023. Mines and other EOs, particularly cluster bomblets, cause injury and deaths decades after the conflict ends. They also have long-term negative impacts on the environment.

By interdicting the use of agricultural land, mine fields reduce the already very small arable surface of the country, reducing crop and livestock production. When detonated as well as when left to degrade, EOs introduce toxic chemical pollutants into the environment. Contaminated soil poisons its users and is also washed away by violent downpours. Rain spreads the chemicals into surface water and infiltrates aquifers, thus polluting drinking water in wells and springs. These processes persist for decades, affecting human and animal health as well as natural and cultivated plants. Poverty and the lack of alternative economic resources compel people to continue grazing their livestock and cultivating many mined areas, thus risking injury and death from explosions, as well as long-term poisoning from the chemicals released over time.

The only positive impact of mine fields, when left unused, is that they enable pasture to regenerate and wild fauna and flora to recover, though of course animals are also at risk and sustainable use of these areas remains impossible until cleared of EOs, an expensive, painstaking and dangerous process.

Given the nature of the conflict, marking of mined areas is neither systematic nor comprehensive. Moreover, weather events contribute to moving mines and other EOs, so that areas which are believed to be safe become dangerous after flash floods which carry mines downstream or strong winds which uncover others which were previously buried sufficiently deeply to be less dangerous. The increased violence and intensity of downpours is one of the ways in which global warming directly worsens the dangers of EOs.

In 2022, the latest year for which accurate data on clearance are available, only 2 km2 and 2379 anti-personnel mines were cleared. Despite the heroic efforts of individuals involved in this work, this only represents a very small percentage of contaminated areas, estimated at 52km2 in the area under IRG control while there is no estimate for the DFA-controlled areas. Other estimates are as high as 100km2. No national survey has taken place, and the process of surveying is hindered by the continuation of the war, given that most mine fields are along or near front lines and remain military assets, which also explains the unavailability of maps to de-miners – if indeed said maps exist at all.

Lack of information on mined sites and low population awareness increase the importance of public education and information. In 2022, 230 000 people got mine awareness training, the majority of them children. However, the number of injuries and the frequency of incidents clearly demonstrate that the need for education remains vast.

International funding was halved in recent years and this has severely affected EO surveys, clearance and education. The 2024 UN Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) call for US$ 11 million has largely been secured, but it is only intended to reach half a million of the close to 7 million people at risk. As is the case for other humanitarian interventions most funding comes from the US. The main international NGOs involved are The HALO Trust, a UK based organisation specialising in mine clearance, the Danish Refugee Council, Humanity and Inclusion and the Norwegian People’s Aid all of whom work in education, surveys and mine clearance. However, in 2022, only 23 AP mines and 501 other explosive items were destroyed, but 206 people were killed and 73 injured. The ICRC and UNICEF both provide support to victims and risk education, while the former is also involved in mine clearance.

Although the need is probably evenly spread between Huthi and IRG-controlled areas, other than work funded through the UN’s HRP, the main support for de-mining action has come from the Saudi-funded MASAM project which only operates in IRG-controlled areas and has a budget of USD 30 million annually. Since it started operations in 2018, it reported clearing 439 132 mines and other explosive items, reflecting its considerable investment. However as its operations are limited to IRG-controlled areas and it deals neither with the mines laid on the ground nor with other EOs airdropped by the Saudi-led coalition in Huthi-controlled areas.

Regardless of governance, innocent and uninvolved, mostly poor civilians are the main victims of mines throughout the country. The staff of de-mining organisations, the overwhelming majority of whom are Yemenis, risk their lives on a daily basis, to solve this lasting nefarious problem, which should not exist in the first place, if the conflicting parties had respected the anti-mine convention which Yemen signed. Neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE, two of the parties to the conflict, have signed the convention.

Leave a Comment

Scroll to Top

Access provided by the Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford

Copy link