The civil war in Yemen is raging, with the UN calling it the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The conflict between Yemen’s internationally recognized government and Iran-backed Houthi rebels has led to disease outbreaks, widespread famine and water shortages, 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 dead since fighting erupted in 2015, can be attributed to civilian deaths in extensive bombing campaigns. Countless bombs have left behind 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 exemplified over the past decade by an unprecedented amount of back-to-back hurricanes and cyclones in a region where tropical storms rarely occur.
The extreme heat is affecting most of the country and will allow tropical diseases like malaria to spread easily. Biodiversity loss is also accelerating in many ecosystems.
The war undermined critical action in several ways. First, issues such as the environment have not received the attention they deserve because humanitarian aid is the number one priority of most international organizations.
Second, the government has been caught in a budget stalemate for the past few years. He devoted all his resources to repelling the Houthi resistance. In August, for example, violence escalated when separatists took control of the port city of Aden. Mainstream coverage of the war didn’t help either; despite the adverse environmental consequences, he largely ignored these issues.
“It is certain that Yemen is one of the countries most affected by climate change,” said Tawfeeq al-Sharjabi, Yemeni deputy minister of water and environment.
Solar energy could help alleviate the environmental crisis
One solution that could alleviate some of Yemen’s problems is solar power. Countries supporting the Yemeni government’s efforts, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have been developing alternative energy that could bolster Yemen’s energy sector and save billions of dollars in the process.
International organizations have also mobilized. the world Bank works with local communities to install solar applications in schools and other public facilities. It aims to bring electricity into the lives of more than 1.3 million people while helping Yemen meet the goals of the Paris Agreement by reducing carbon emissions by up to 430,000 tons.
On the other hand, as The Cairo Review points out, the drawbacks of solar alternatives may also simply push civilians back to traditional fuel sources once they become available again.
A ticking time bomb with global implications
Although many problems are manifesting on land, problems may soon arise in the seas. In July, the UN warned that the Safer FSO, a tanker abandoned in 2015, could explode due to a buildup 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 larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. He would devastate the Red Sea and surrounding bodies of waterreaching Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and even the coast of Egypt.
A spill of this magnitude would effectively prevent trade from reaching international destinations via the Red Sea, which accounts for 10% of global trade. Moreover, it would wreak havoc on marine life for hundreds of miles around and further aggravate the water crisis in Yemen.
The problem stems from Houthi control over the tanker, which has prevented maintenance by 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 increases with each passing day,” Doug Weir, director of policy at the Conflict and Environment Observatory, told CNBC.
The environmental crisis in Yemen is rapidly deteriorating, but the conflict in the country has prevented the adoption of important preventive measures – the government faces countless problems of its own. Its lack of financial flexibility means these issues are likely to persist for the foreseeable future.
Bringing solar technology to the country is a laudable initiative, but it is only one piece of a larger puzzle. Securing the Safer FSO will also require considerable effort.
Yemen needs a coordinated global response to resolve this dilemma. However, given the complexities of international diplomacy, his environmental pleas are likely to yield little to no response.