For years, experts have warned that Yemen is at great risk of completely running out of potable water in the next few decades. Today, the situation is dire: The majority of people living in Yemen have no access to clean water, and Yemen’s freshwater share per capita is only 74 cubic meters — drastically below what is considered to be the “water poverty line” of 1,000 cubic meters per capita.
Already one of the most water-poor countries in the world, climate change is having devastating impacts on Yemen’s water supply, a phenomenon that is already well underway as droughts and flooding, rather than regular rainfall, have become increasingly common. But climate change is not the only causal factor behind Yemen’s rapidly decreasing water supply. The conflict may be an even greater contributor to this catastrophe.
The Yemeni conflict is now in its eighth year. In addition to the extensive civilian harm and the countless violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights laws, warring parties have also caused extensive environmental damage that will continue to last for decades to come. And despite increasingly dwindling resources, warring parties continue to attack and destroy sources of water and food, including directly through airstrikes and the placement of landmines and indirectly through the imposition of blockades and the non-payment of government salaries, exacerbating the impacts of climate change on the country’s already limited water supply.
While challenges with resource management predate the war, the deterioration of government institutions has led to a breakdown in the management of waste, water, food, land, and broader infrastructure across the country. For example, there has been little-to-no control over the drilling of wells or irrigation across the country. Communities and farmers have drilled wells and irrigated farms as needed, often without attaining any permissions to do so, resulting in the over-extraction of groundwater supplies. In some cases, this over-extraction has decreased water pressure in wells, leading to many of them drying up.
Houthis’ use of landmines and airstrikes conducted by the Saudi-led coalition have damaged or destroyed water sources and farmland across Yemen, devastating the country.
Where waste facilities have broken down due to lack of management and resources or have become inaccessible due to warfare, waste has overflown in residential areas, impacting the health of residents. For example, in Taiz, the waste management facilities are located on the frontlines, making them inaccessible due to fighting. An activist from the area told the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) that a trench that runs down the middle of Taiz city had been turned into a dump, causing disease rates to skyrocket in the city.
Furthermore, in areas where individuals have been displaced, waste and sewage infrastructure have often not been developed and are failing to meet increased demand. Thus, many families resort to digging sewage holes next to their homes and shelters, which can have a significant impact on the groundwater supply — particularly where they have been dug deep enough to tap into the groundwater.
ATTACKING CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE
Both the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis, two of the main warring parties in the conflict, have been responsible for destroying critical infrastructure through ground and aerial attacks. Airstrikes conducted by the coalition have damaged or destroyed water sources and farmland across the country. A study from 2017, using data from the Yemen Data Project, found that agricultural land was the most frequently hit target by the Saudi-led coalition in most governorates across the country between March 2015 and August 2016. The Yemen Data Project also recorded 121 airstrikes conducted by the coalition on water sources and infrastructure between March 2015 and May 2021. In many cases, the airstrikes have destroyed water pumps on farmland, rendering an entire irrigation system useless, and leaving farmers without a means to produce crops.
The Houthis have been also been responsible for the destruction of farmland and water sources. In an interview with CIVIC, conducted as part of the research for a 2020 report, a community leader from Al Zouab village of Al Bayda Governorate stated that the Houthis had “bombed the water well,” as well as “[taken] over farms and used them as their own.” However, direct attacks on infrastructure by the Houthis are far less common because they don’t have access to aerial weaponry and are generally less precise in their attacks.
In addition to the immediate damage these attacks have had on the environment — both in the immediate destruction of and damage to land and water — they also lead to long-term damage, as broken down irrigation systems may leave the land to dry out and become non-arable. Explosive weapons have also been shown to have long-term pollutant effects on water, air, and soil.
LONG-TERM IMPACT ON THE ENVIRONMENT
One of the most significant environmental impacts of the war has been the prolific laying of landmines across the country. The Houthis have been the main group responsible for this, laying mines across 18 of Yemen’s 23 governorates in such vast numbers that there has been little way to estimate how many are currently in the country.
One individual working in an organization responsible for clearing landmines in one of the southern governorates told CIVIC that he estimated that there were at least 800,000 landmines scattered across the country, but that they could not “understand the size of the problem because it’s happening at such a great degree and too fast to track and do a proper assessment.” The Houthis’ use of landmines is also against international law. For example, anti-personnel mines, the more common form of landmine being used by the Houthis, are prohibited under the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction of 1997, which Yemen is a party to.
The Houthis have laid many of the landmines on farmland and in and around water sources, which has prohibited farmers from being able to access their land, and communities from being able to access much-needed sources of water. Even where landmines are not specifically placed on farmland or in water sources, individuals that CIVIC spoke with stated that recent flooding has washed up landmines into these areas, making them all the more dangerous and unpredictable. With landmines scattered across rural lands and water systems, farmers cannot tend to the land or irrigate as necessary, causing long-term damage to otherwise arable land. Until all landmines are able to be cleared — a task that will certainly take decades — they will continue to pose a danger both to the communities living in areas that have been mined and to the land they have been placed on.
The aerial and naval blockade in Yemen has also impacted the environment. The Saudi-led coalition has imposed a blockade in Yemen since the beginning of the conflict “that has severely restricted the flow of food, fuel, and medicine to civilians.” The inability to effectively manage water and waste due to the lack of critical resources has had disastrous environmental impacts. This has been the case in Aden, where the government was unable to replace the broken pumps of one of the two main sewage treatment facilities after it was initially attacked by the Houthis in 2015. Since that time, the facility has completely overflown into the protected wetlands around the plant, which eventually leads into the sea.
AN UNKNOWN FUTURE
The combination of the restrictions on imports and the country’s related dire economic circumstances have meant that even as severe climate events increase, the country has little to no resources to manage these events, such as through the rerouting of flood waters. As the war continues in Yemen with no end in sight, it remains impossible to predict the extent of devastation and destruction that will be done upon the environment, and how long the effects of the damage that has already been done will last.
With vital resources like water vanishing at an unsustainable rate throughout the country, warring parties must immediately cease attacks on critical infrastructure, which are prohibited by international humanitarian law. Government officials, civil society, and the international community must work together to develop and implement a comprehensive and operational plan to combat and mitigate the environmental damage caused by the war, and to prevent future degradation of the environment. If this does not occur, Yemen not only risks running out of water but remaining in conflict for many decades to come.
Niku Jafarnia is the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Regional Researcher at the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), where she leads research and advocacy regarding issues of civilian protection across the MENA region.