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Yemen is located at the Southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula and is predominantly an arid country. It faces serious risks from the impact of climate change in the sectors of agriculture production, water, health, and coastal zones (Climatelinks, 2016). In a landscape of conflict, environmental degradation will increase the severity of these conditions – rapid population growth, terrorist organisations, and a decrease in water and food resources. Climate change will majorly affect agriculture production due to rising temperatures with heavy rainfall leading to shortened growing seasons. However, many factors, including lack of natural resources management and weak governance, will majorly limit Yemen’s capacity to address the impact of climate change.
Additionally, the conflict has accelerated the environmental and social consequences of climate change. Resource depletion has led to violent conflicts and increased land use by terrorist organisations based on geographic conditions and the availability of resources. As a result of the conflict, Yemen’s weak agricultural sector has had a detrimental effect on food insecurity and projects aimed at preserving their biodiverse areas. This paper aims to give insight on the impact of climate change in Yemen, with particular attention to the interaction between climate change and the conflict.
The International Rescue Committee’s Emergency Watchlist ranked Yemen for the third year in a row as the country most at risk of a humanitarian catastrophe (International Rescue Committee (IRC), 2020). Yemen crisis overview estimates an alarming 24.1 million people in need of humanitarian support to sustain their lives. More than 20 million people lack access to clean water and are at risk of famine. In addition, 51 percent of health facilities are partially functional with limited medical resources. Furthermore, 7.4 million people require medical services to treat malnutrition- 53.2 percent of children are in acute need (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 2020). The severity of needs has escalated in the absence of a promising agreement and violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law. Additionally, humanitarian operations constantly face impediments from the ongoing conflict and the bureaucratic restrictions leading to the severity of humanitarian conditions.
Yemen ranks 172 out of 181 countries in the Notre Dame Global Adaption Initiative Index (Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative (ND-GAIN) Index, 2018). It is the 26th most vulnerable country and the 17th least ready country. According to the methodology, vulnerability measures the country’s exposure, sensitivity, and ability to address the effects of climate change. Vulnerability composition considers ecosystem services, food, human habitat, health, infrastructure, and water. Readiness measures a country’s ability to leverage investments and transform them into adaptation actions. Readiness composition considers economic, governance, and social readiness.
Interaction between Climate Change and Conflict
The literature review in the field has led to identifying the link between climate change and conflict. The outcome includes the exploration of climate change leading to two forms of terrorism. Firstly, eco-terrorism occurs when individuals commit violence against civilians or property in defence of the environment or affect environmental policy changes. Secondly, environmental terrorism involves destruction as a weapon of war or terror to instil fear in the population for organisational advancement. Climate change and its impact on the environment have been linked to a variety of conflicts. Compared to other drivers of conflict, this interaction is considered to have fewer ramifications within country-armed conflicts. However, several studies have demonstrated that weak governance and low living standards are associated with an increased risk for conflict and violence due to the effects of climate change (O’Loughlin, Linke, & Witmer, 2014).
Furthermore, there is now widespread awareness through studies that climate change exacerbates political instability and conflicts due to competition for resources and growing global insecurity, placing the most vulnerable areas in the hands of insurgency, terrorism, and organised crime (Collins, 2019). Accordingly, there is evidence that temperature fluctuations in the Sub-Saharan region are associated with an increased risk of protests and riots. In addition, rising temperatures have been associated with conflicts and a possible deterioration of climate change adaptation (Van Weezel, 2020). Although climate change affects multiple resources, the most concerning factor is the struggle for water. Due to the lack of water, especially in Yemen, Syria, and Afghanistan, terrorists have gained strategic advantages by cutting supply or contaminating water sources leading to environmental terrorism. Several terrorist groups have exploited these tactical advantages. For instance, despite a diminished position due to government retaliation, Al-Shabaab has gained access to the water supply chains, thus regaining power without controlling the cities directly (The World, 2014).
The Impact of Conflict on Climate Change in Yemen
Yemen faces both short-term and long-term environmental crises. The most prominent environmental concern centres on the abandoned oil tanker situated on the country’s west coast. Approximately eight kilometres west of Ras Isa, the supertanker FSO Safer is anchored in the Red Sea and is at risk of leaking its large amount of crude oil into the sea. The vessel has not been inspected since Houthi rebels captured it in 2015 at the beginning of Yemen’s civil war. The supertanker holds approximately 1.148 million barrels of Marib light crude oil. Moreover, it is four times as much as was spilt from the Exxon Valdez (Alaska). According to Inger Andersen, Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, “Time is running out for us to act in a coordinated manner to prevent a looming environmental, economic and humanitarian catastrophe” (United Nations Security Council, 2020). In addition, an oil spill, or a fire aboard the FSO Safer would be highly damaging to the environment, considering the Red Sea is a significant reservoir of biodiversity.
Additionally, the conflict has contributed to an increase in water scarcity. With a conflict that has lasted since 2015, Yemen has been considered one of the world’s most water-stressed countries due to ineffective government policies, the increasing threat of climate change, and blockages in the water supply and access (Elayah, 2018). In blatant violation of international law, Yemen’s water and electrical systems were attacked more than a hundred times by the coalition forces led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The attack led to a protracted cholera outbreak, massive displacement, and a breakdown in the health care system. As a result of this devastating situation, the Houthi rebels cut off supplies to the cities in their control, reportedly seizing water at checkpoints and disallowing its distribution to their opponents.
In addition, Yemenis displaced by the conflict have also stated that water and energy scarcity has emerged since the war began. Climate change is a significant factor in resource scarcity resulting from conflict, where water can be used against one side or as a means of control against the other. The previous examples indicate increased use of the environment to induce fear in people to accomplish political goals. Therefore, any attack on the environment that is already vulnerable falls under the category of environmental terrorism. Climate change’s repercussions may cause this threat to take unforeseeable forms in the future. The many problems that Yemen faces today would likely exist even without climate change. However, changing climates and their role in Yemen have likely exacerbated these problems and will continue to do so going forward.
There is a direct relationship between climate change and conflicts, which could worsen as the temperature rises. Additionally, the increasing shortage of resources- water, degradation of agricultural areas, and increasing temperatures tend to exacerbate state fragility and political turmoil. Moreover, the relationship between climate change and terrorism is characterised as developing approaches by utilising environmental stress as a form of control. An instance of environmental terrorism occurs when an act of war or terrorism damages the environment. This paper explored the interaction between conflict and climate change considering the situation in Yemen. Among numerous examples, the supertanker Safer poses a massive threat to marine diversity and human lives. Thus, the ongoing conflict is affecting the development process in Yemen and is also leading to the acceleration of environmental consequences.
Climatelinks, United States Agency for International Development (USAID). (2016, November 22). Climate Risk Profile: Yemen. Retrieved from https://www.climatelinks.org/resources/climate-risk-profile-yemen
Collins, C. (2019, September 25). Climate Change and Global Security: Planning for Potential Conflict. Retrieved from https://climate.org/climate-change-and-global-security-planning-for-potential-conflict/
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Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative (ND-GAIN) Index. (2018) Yemen. Retrieved from https://gain-new.crc.nd.edu/country/yemen
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author (s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Jindal Centre for the Global South or its members.