The civil war in Yemen rages on, with the UN calling it the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The conflict between the internationally recognized Yemeni government and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels has resulted in epidemics, widespread famine and water scarcity, which threaten the livelihoods of millions of people across the country. On top of that, it now appears to be in a time of environmental crisis.
Much of the death toll, which exceeded 91,600 deaths since fighting broke out in 2015, can be attributed to civilians killed as a result of extensive bombing campaigns. Countless bombs have left chemical residues that can attach to particles in the air, seep into the ground, and travel vast distances in wind and rain.
In the years to come, climate change and rising sea levels will hit Yemen hard. This has been illustrated over the past decade by an unprecedented amount of consecutive hurricanes and cyclones in a region where tropical storms rarely occur.
The extreme heat affects most of the country and will allow tropical diseases like malaria to spread easily. The loss of biodiversity is also accelerating in many ecosystems.
The war undermined critical action in several ways. First, issues such as the environment have not received due attention as humanitarian aid is the number one priority for most international organizations.
Second, the government has been caught in a financial bind in recent years. He devoted all his resources to pushing back the Houthi resistance. In August, for example, violence escalated when separatists took control of the port city of Aden. Media coverage of the war didn’t help either; despite the toll the environment takes, it has largely ignored these issues.
“Yemen is definitely one of the countries most affected by climate change,” said Tawfeeq al-Sharjabi, Yemeni deputy minister of water and environment.
Solar power could help alleviate environmental crisis
Solar power is a solution that could alleviate some of Yemen’s problems. Countries that support the Yemeni government’s efforts, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have developed alternative energy that could support Yemen’s energy sector and save billions of dollars in the process.
International organizations have also intensified. The world Bank works with local communities to install solar applications in schools and other public facilities. It aims to bring electricity to the lives of more than 1.3 million people while helping Yemen meet its Paris Agreement goals by reducing carbon emissions by up to 430,000 tonnes.
On the other hand, as Cairo review points out, the downsides of solar alternatives may also simply cause civilians to switch back to traditional fuel sources once they become available again.
A time bomb with global implications
Although there are many problems manifesting themselves on land, problems could soon arise in the seas. In July, the UN warned that the Safer FSO, an oil tanker abandoned in 2015, could explode due to a build-up of volatile gases and leak more than a million barrels of oil.
To put that into perspective, experts warn it could result in a spill four times the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. It would devastate the Red Sea and surrounding water bodies, reaching Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and even the Egyptian coast.
A spill of this magnitude would effectively prevent trade from reaching international destinations via the Red Sea, which accounts for 10% of world trade. In addition, it would wreak havoc on marine life for hundreds of kilometers around and further exacerbate the water crisis in Yemen.
The problem stems from the Houthi control over the tanker, which prevented maintenance from outside groups. Fortunately, a UN team was recently dispatched to assess the situation after complicated negotiations with the rebel group. Other than that, little progress has been made.
“The danger grows with each passing day,” Doug Weir, policy director of the Conflict and Environment Observatory, told CNBC.
Yemen’s environmental crisis is rapidly worsening, but the conflict in the country has prevented the implementation of important preventive measures – the government faces countless problems. Its lack of financial flexibility means these problems are likely to persist for the foreseeable future.
Bringing solar technology to the country is a laudable initiative, but it’s only one piece of the bigger puzzle. Securing the more secure FSO will also require substantial efforts.
Yemen needs a coordinated global response to address this dilemma. However, given the complexities of international diplomacy, its environmental pleas are likely to yield little or no response.