Yemen and COP28

Summary: Yemen’s environment already challenged by global warming and severely degraded by more than eight years of civil war is in crisis but there appears to be little chance that COP28 will offer any real solutions for a country facing an environmental catastrophe.

We thank our regular contributor Helen Lackner for today’s article. A Yemen expert, 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 can happen for it to end. In July 2022 Routledge published her latest book Yemen: Poverty and Conflict. Helen’s most recent Arab Digest podcast is available here.

Yemen is a leader among poor countries suffering the impact of global warming while having minimal responsibility in causing the problems. In this respect it is similar to its neighbours in the Horn of Africa. Its most prominent environmental issue is water scarcity which we addressed in detail in our August 2023 posting and which poses the most immediate and fundamental threat to the country’s very existence as a place where life is possible. Here we will address some of its many other environmental concerns.

In summary, the country’s many environmental problems are not all directly related to climate change, but all demand human action to be mitigated. First, after more than 8 years of fighting, there is a wide range of chemicals and other remnants of war, such as exploded and unexploded ordnance on the ground including mines, bombs and artillery shells which spread chemical pollutants and are scattered throughout Yemen. These prevent agricultural and other land uses in a country where only 3% of the surface is suitable for agriculture and 70% of the population lives in rural areas. They also kill and maim shepherds and other civilians including children. Second, soils and water are polluted by hydrocarbon side effects at production sites as well as petroleum and other waste from vehicle use and maintenance. Third, with the advent of modern industrial products, solid waste is polluting land and air, ranging from plastics to cans and other non-biodegradable products of the consumer society. Inadequate solid and liquid waste disposal causes serious health hazards to the country’s increasing population.

Biodiversity has suffered from deforestation [for fuel and construction], overgrazing and desertification by winds and droughts. Many native species have been smothered by invasive species such as prosopis juliflora (commonly known as Mesquite) initially deliberately introduced as an anti-desertification measure but which is obstructing water courses. Yemen’s wildlife has been hunted almost to extinction, largely due to poverty and the high prices paid for the likes of oryxes, leopards and cheetahs.

Yemeni soldiers in Dhale province killed two Arabian leopards, 2018 [photo credit: social media]
Yemeni soldiers in Dhale province killed two Arabian leopards, 2018 [photo credit: social media]
Its coastal environment is eaten away by erosion, the destruction of mangroves, loss of coral reefs and the slow process of rising sea levels. Many of its marine species have been overfished, some of them close to extinction, as a result of illegal fishing by larger national and international fleets and the absence of enforcement of both international and national regulations. Ships have been releasing polluted effluent near the coasts, further worsening the situation.

Recent years have witnessed an acceleration and intensification of extreme weather events, whether cyclones or droughts. In 2015 the country was hit by two cyclones within a week, a further two in 2018 and one in 2023. Devastating floods due to violent extreme downpours are becoming more frequent and widespread and are interspersed with droughts. One does not compensate for the other, as violent rains do not replenish the aquifers, instead they wash away the soils and damage the wadi banks. These events degrade and eventually destroy the terraces on the country’s famous steep slopes which play a major role in keeping its rural population alive, as well as forming a beautiful landscape.

While some of these problems are due to global warming to which Yemen has contributed insignificantly [its CO2 emissions are 0.07% of the world’s], others are the result of human action and in many cases inaction. Political neglect of the issues can be considered criminal as environmental problems are responsible for many deaths some directly, for example, in flash floods but others from indirect processes such as malnutrition and poverty resulting from droughts.

Over the decades authorities have agreed policies to address some environmental issues. However, they are not implemented. The situation deteriorated before the war and continues to do so now. The rival factions controlling different parts of the fragmented country neglect the problems despite their urgency, despite their having become so noticeable that citizens are aware and calling for mitigating and adaptation action.

Immediate action is necessary. First, effective water management is essential to enable Yemenis to continue living in the country: this means enforcing regulations to prioritise human domestic needs and reduce deep well irrigation of thirsty cash crops, organising water management at a watershed level. Preventive action needs to be taken to safeguard coastal cities and fisher communities from rising sea levels. Early warning systems must be set up to warn people of oncoming storms and other weather-related threats to normal life. Measures must be prepared in advance of such events to help those affected cope and eventually recover their livelihoods. Petroleum-based pollution must be controlled to prevent the poisoning of potable water supplies and of agricultural soils. Anti-desertification measures are essential (however possible negative impact side effects must be considered, for example the introduction of prosopis juliflora  settled some dunes but it is causing considerable damage to wadi beds and smothers other plants throughout the country, thus possibly causing more damage and benefit over time). ‘Protected’ areas and species should be effectively protected with a combination of enforcement and education, as well as poverty reduction.

Expectations of COP 28 in Dubai are low. The record of its predecessors and the current backtracking on climate mitigation in many developed states suggest that little more than symbolic statements are likely. In 2009 the world pledged US$100 billion per year to help poor countries mitigate climate change; this has never been paid. Unless serious action is taken worldwide to reduce carbon emissions, global warming and its attendant disasters will continue to speed up. Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has  reasonably suggested “a US$25 billion global windfall levy on oil and gas profits, paid by the richest petrostates, would amount to … only 3% of the export earnings of these major producers” and that last year the hydrocarbon industry “banked about $4 trillion globally, [representing] one of the biggest redistributions of wealth from the world’s poor to the richest petrostates.”  Yemenis, alongside world citizenry, may hope this proposal will be adopted, and that they will get the support they need to reduce their suffering. Is this likely at a COP held in a major hydrocarbon exporting state and presided over by the head of its National Oil Company?

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