Yemen: Instability Hits the Climate Too

Yemen’s population of more than 30 million people is facing the dangers of climate change in conjunction with the war that has been ongoing for eight years, which further complicates the climate problem. In fact, if climate variability continues at the same pace, there is no doubt that its impact on Yemen will be no less catastrophic than the current state of war and political instability.
2022-11-09

Lutf Al-Sarari

A story writer and journalist from Yemen


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Ghassan Ghaib - Iraq

This publication has benefited from the support of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. This text may be reproduced in part or in full, provided the source is acknowledged.

Climate change knows no geopolitical boundaries. Although the factors responsible for climate change have been identified, namely the excessive industrial production and the consumption of fossil fuels, industrial countries, both large and emerging, continue to fail in tackling these factors.

Climate studies have indicated that the "damage caused by climate change” is often “completely independent” of the location of greenhouse gas emissions, which are the prime cause of climate variability and extremes .

 Therefore, as long as the impacts of climate change do not bear the clear fingerprints of the perpetrator, the climate problem is bound to exacerbate, placing its heavy burden on the countries with the most fragile infrastructures, including the countries of the Arab region. Yemen is no different in this context, where the causes of climate change are becoming increasingly ambiguous, especially in light of the limited material and technical resources of meteorological stations and the scarce studies on climate change over the years. Yemen’s population of more than 30 million people (per UN estimates) is facing the dangers of climate change in conjunction with the ongoing war that has been raging for eight years, which further complicates the climate problem.

The current state of the climate

Generally, Yemen has a semi-arid tropical climate, as the country lies between 10° and 20°N latitudes. In official classifications, Yemen's climate is characterized by diversity due to its topography, which is divided geographically into five climatic zones . Given the importance of rain as the major - if not the only - source of water, the Agricultural Research & Extension Authority has developed a climatic division of these zones consisting of 13 subzones. Their sequence starts from the zone with the heaviest and most steady rate of rainfall: Ibb, a city located within the central highlands of Yemen's southwest . These subzones then overlap across the administrative boundaries of each governorate, where climate indicators show that the climatic elements may be the same or close in degree at times and highly divergent at other times . For example, the usual annual precipitation average ranges between 1500 and 450 mm in subzones 1 to 5, while it continues to decrease in other subzones, reaching 0 and 125 mm in subzones 12 and 13, the coastal region and the desert region, respectively. Although the times of precipitation vary from one climatic subzone to another, rain regularly falls in two main seasons: spring (March-May) and summer and part of autumn (July-September).

A funnel cloud. Photo by Omran Muhammad Ali Al-Akwa

This discrepancy also applies to temperatures. While the city of Say’oun in Hadramaut Governorate records 45°C in summer and 31°C in winter, the temperatures in the city of Dhamar and Al-Shuayb district in Al-Dalie Governorate range between 1 and 4°C below zero in winter .

During the past four decades, fluctuations and variances between average temperature and precipitation rates have become an increasingly dominant feature from year to year. From the late 1970s to the early 2020s, the general precipitation rate decreased, while the cumulative average temperature increased in a statistically unremarkable manner, yet it was enough for the population to feel it in the last five years at least. With the disturbance of other climate elements - such as oceans’ water evaporation rate, soil moisture, the state of turbulence in the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea, and the resulting depression and tropical cyclones - the current climatic situation of Yemen appears to be in a state of fluctuation that might conceal disasters of varying severity that are waiting to happen in the foreseeable or distant future.

Disastrous warning signs

Between 2015 and 2018, three tropical cyclones hit Socotra Archipelago, Hadramaut, and Al-Mahrah. That is in addition to the storms that form annually in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea during two main seasons . These turbulent tropical conditions affect Yemen’s climate, causing heavy precipitation, which substantially exceeds the usual averages in certain areas, while other regions remain vulnerable to drought. The rushing torrents and floods resulting from heavy rainfalls have damaged farms and houses in villages and cities, causing catastrophic annual and semi-annual damage, including dozens of human losses. Drought has also caused a decrease in the food security level, an increase in desertification, and the demise of vegetation cover due to overgrazing and logging. The rate of desertification in Yemen has increased from 90% in 2014 to 97% in 2022 . The misuse of renewable water resources has also led to an increase in the consumption of groundwater reserves, along with the difficulties arising when residents try to access them. Consequently, the forecasts of the water scarcity index for 2025 have become triple what they were in 1990.

Compared to the dry and rainy years that Yemen witnessed during the past four decades, it has become noticeable that the second decade of the third millennium brought with it a relative increase in rainfall rates, but their fluctuation between scarcity and abundance remained prevalent with the rise in temperature year after year. The precipitation in 2020 rose to a new all-time peak; it included climatic subzones that usually had little rain, such as the governorates of Al-Jawf, Marib, Al-Mahrah, and Hadramaut. While the year 2021 and the rainy spring season of 2022 disappointed farmers in the western and northwestern highlands, the southern, eastern, and central governorates received abundant rain. As for the second season of 2022 (July-September), its heavy rains brought catastrophic flash floods to the western and northeastern parts of the country.

There is hardly a year without victims of climate change-related disasters in Yemen. Thunderstorms, torrential rains, and floods are the most prominent climatic disasters that claim victims. The statistics produced by the specialized United Nations organizations have rarely included the victims of climate change-related disasters in Yemen. Moreover, the numbers mentioned in the news coverage on the internet are often not final. Nevertheless, it is possible to trace some numbers that shed a glimmer of light on patterns of climate disasters in the country. In 2008, the Hadramaut flash floods claimed the lives of at least 180 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes, in addition to the demise of livestock and destruction of the infrastructure of the streets and agricultural lands .

 A journalist in the Houthi-controlled Saba News Agency counted 365 fatalities caused by torrential rains, floods, and thunderbolts between 2010 and 2020, which is less than expected compared to the escalating climatic changes in the country during the same period.

This news does not include all deaths caused by extreme climatic events, and the statistics vary from one official body to another. For example, on August 10, 2020, the Ministry of Health in Sanaa announced that the casualty toll from the torrential rains was 131 fatalities and 124 injuries, based on hospital records. The following week, the Civil Defense Department of the Ministry of Interior, affiliated with the Sanaa authority, announced a statistic of the damage caused by the same event. It stated that the torrential rains killed only 70 people and caused 909 damages in infrastructure, including the collapse of one dam and 462 houses and the sinking of 126 vehicles. The destructive flash floods also resulted in 162 rockslides and 56 kilometers of agricultural land being washed away . The torrential rains flooded the city of Aden in April 2020, coinciding with the start of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in Yemen. Floods and the pandemic claimed hundreds of lives; the flash floods swept away dozens of vehicles and destroyed a large part of the city's infrastructure , an unfamiliar disaster in the people's recent memory.

Climate studies have indicated that the damage caused by climate change is often “completely independent” from the location of greenhouse gas emissions, which are the prime cause of climate variability and extreme weather.

The early years of the 2020s were also not free from extreme climate disasters. However, the damage inflicted by the 2021 flash floods had concentrated in the southern and eastern governorates, leaving at least 60 people killed and resulting in washing away more than 30,000 acres of farmland in the Lahj Governorate alone . The summer flash floods of 2022 were more violent than ever, introducing unusual weather phenomena, such as tornadoes and unprecedented thunderbolts. The de facto authorities in Sanaa have reported 91 people killed, including children and women, in climate-related disasters in 2022, with “up to 24,000 families” estimated to be affected ; however, the World Health Organization has reported 77 people killed, and “more than 35,000 families in 85 districts across 16 governorates” affected . On top of that, the storms washed away agricultural soil, crops, vegetation cover, and camps for internally displaced persons due to the war, especially in Marib Governorate. The damage also included the total and partial collapse of thousands of homes, including ancient buildings and infrastructure facilities, such as roads, bridges, and water barriers.

Floods sweep homes in Al-Durayhimi district in Al-Hodaidah city. Photo by Issa Balah

Where does it all come from?

Undoubtedly, there are local factors that contribute to the emergence of this devastating climate variability. However, they cannot be compared to external factors, especially if we take into account the role of industry in exacerbating global warming and environmental pollution at the land, sea, and air levels.

Yemen is not an industrial country; its industrial facilities are small, and its production is limited to light industries. Thus, the levels of potential carbon dioxide emitted locally are limited to the combustion of fossil fuels in these facilities and burning them for transportation, generators, and dewatering pumps. Moreover, since 2013, the marine environment in the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea has been exposed to the risks of pollution resulting from the leakage of quantities of oil from 12 “rickety and vulnerable” ships . There is also the decaying tanker, Safer, in the Red Sea, which the United Nations is trying to safely discharge crude oil from. It is not clear to what extent this pollution has affected the climate changes in the country; however, it is clear that the country is affected by storms, tropical cyclones, and depressions in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea.

Climate studies have attributed the reasons for the formation of these storms and hurricanes to the disturbance in wind movement, atmospheric pressure, and the rise of water temperature to up to 26.5°C. In 2021, the average monthly temperature in Socotra Archipelago, located in the Arabian Sea, reached 33.6°C in June, the height of the first season of ocean turbulence. In the second season, October-November, the average temperature was 31.6°C and 30.5°C, respectively. The daily bulletins of the Yemeni Meteorological Center for the summer of 2022 indicated that the sea surface temperature in the Gulf of Aden reached 31°C and the southern Arabian Sea 28°C. They also pointed out that the wind speed in the Arabian Sea and Socotra Archipelago exceeded 55 knots (101.86 kilometers per hour) during July and August, coinciding with heavy precipitation that exceeded what is usual in the mountainous areas, the western coastal strip, and the corresponding heights.

Yemen’s population of more than 30 million people (per UN estimates) is facing the dangers of climate change in conjunction with the ongoing war raging since eight years, which further complicates the climate problem.

During the past four decades, fluctuations and variances between average temperature and precipitation rates have been an increasingly dominant feature. Between 2015 and 2018, three tropical cyclones hit Socotra Archipelago, Hadramaut, and Al-Mahrah, in addition to the raging storms in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea during two seasons annually.

These extreme precipitation events and the unusual variation in temperature between extreme high temperatures in the March-September period and the extreme drop in temperature in the November-January period reinforce the hypothesis that Yemen is affected by climate change in the countries of the region and the world. These external factors have affected sea turbulences, wind flows, and relative humidity, which all factor in creating tropical storms and cyclones . Among the external factors affecting Yemen's climate are the tropical waves, such as the Kelvin wave and the resulting Rossby sub-waves, which are the basis for creating tropical depressions, storms, cyclones, and heavy precipitation events. Similarly, there is also the Madden-Julian Oscillation (MJO), the warming phase of the sea temperature known as El Niño, and the cooling phase as La Niña. Moreover, the combination of El Niño and positive polarity in the Indian Ocean causes precipitation rates to increase in Yemen more than usual, especially during July and August.

Numbers and conclusions

Yemen suffers from many statistical and analytical problems, and the meteorological sector is no exception. On top of that, the concerns of the vast majority of Yemeni citizens about weather and climate are limited to the direct consequences they sense in their daily lives, such as effects on drinking water, irrigation, and pastures. However, their sources of information focus on traditional knowledge of rainy and dry seasons rather than modern scientific knowledge. Because the causes of climate change are still hidden behind its ambiguous nature and the countries’ national security motives, the climate change-related disasters in Yemen are often interpreted as "predestination" without paying attention to their worldly causes. Although this belief is no longer as prevalent as before the third millennium, the uncertainty of scientific explanations still constitutes an obstacle to understanding the dangers of climate change and its local and foreign causes.

The unstable political situation in the country and the war, which restricted the State’s institutional capacity, provided an opportunity for the proliferation of weather misinformation and uncertain indicators, especially on social media websites. This has prompted the National Center of Meteorology in Sanaa to issue two statements, the first of which was released on 25 June 2022, admitting the instability of weather conditions with the value of the atmospheric pressure in the Indian Ocean reaching 0994 millibars. The second statement, issued on 9 August 2022, attributed the heavy precipitation during 2020 and 2022 to "the country being affected by the Indian monsoon, the tropical belt, and eastern waves." These factors have represented “low atmospheric pressure systems” and resulted, especially with the succession of eastern waves, in high precipitation rates and heat waves in Yemen and “some countries in the Middle East.” Eastern waves here are just the second type of tropical Kelvin waves.

The rushing torrents and floods resulting from heavy rains have damaged farms and houses in villages and cities, causing catastrophic damage, including dozens of human losses. The precipitation in 2020 rose to a new all-time peak and included climatic subzones that usually saw little rain.

Drought has also caused a decrease in the level of food security and exacerbated desertification. Consequently, the forecasts of the water scarcity index for 2025 have become triple what they were in 1990. In 2008, the Hadramaut flash floods claimed the lives of at least 180 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes, in addition to the dead livestock and the destruction of infrastructure and agricultural land.

Back to the temperature and precipitation rate, a statistic published on the website, Meteoblue, on average temperature and precipitation rates between 1979 and 2021 has indicated that Yemen's climate is heading toward drought and rising temperatures. After compiling and calculating these averages, it has appeared that the general average temperature increased during the past four decades by +1.08°C, while the average fluctuation in precipitation rates was -55 mm (Table 2). In the details of this table, it is worth noting that the difference in the precipitation rate has acquired a positive sign only in the cities of Al-Mukalla and Say’oun in Hadramaut Governorate, in addition to Al-Mahra Governorate. These areas lie in the Arabian Sea within the climate subzones 11, 12, and 13, where subzone 11 represents highlands and plateaus, 12 represents coastal climate, and 13 represents desert climate for each of the three areas.

Although Yemen appears remote and isolated from the world for reasons related to its political, economic, and social conditions, the country is ultimately not immune from the ramifications of global climate change.

 Global warming in recent years has caused a cumulative increase in surface warming, whether on land or in the waters of the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. The increase in the speed of tropical waves in some years has also led to the emergence of moving depressions and turbulence and increasing activity of tropical cyclones and storms. This has caused heavy rainfalls and catastrophic torrential rains in the stricken areas. With this extreme rainfall, the unstable climate has led to droughts in some years, which has resulted in water scarcity and the desertification of more agricultural land.

The torrential rains flooded the city of Aden in April 2020, coinciding with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in Yemen. Floods and the pandemic claimed hundreds of lives and the flash floods swept away dozens of vehicles and destroyed a large part of the city's infrastructure. The disaster was unfamiliar in the people's recent memory. The summer flash floods of 2022 were more violent than ever, with unusual weather phenomena, such as tornadoes and unprecedented thunderbolts.

The extreme precipitation events at the time and place levels and the extreme variation in temperature between extremely-hot and extremely-cold weather, reinforce the hypothesis that Yemen is affected by climate change. These external factors have affected sea turbulences, wind flow, and relative humidity, which all factor in creating tropical storms and cyclones.

If climate variability continues at the same pace or, more worryingly, at an increasing rate, there is no doubt that its impact on Yemen will be no less dangerous and catastrophic than the current state of war and political instability. 

The content of this publication is the sole responsibility of Assafir Al-Arabi and Rosa Luxemburg Foundation cannot accept any liability for it.

Translated from Arabic by Sabry Zaki
Published in Assafir Al-Arabi on 15/09/2022

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1-Post-Kyoto International Climate Policy, Edited by Joseph E. Aldy and Robert N. Stavins; translated by Essam El Hennawy, Publisher the National Center for Translation, Egypt, No. 2,378, 1st Edition, 2015.
2-The coastal plain, the mountainous heights, the mountain basins, the plateau area, and the desert area - each includes a terrain diversity within the framework of its geographical nature.
3-Agricultural Climate Guide for Yemen 1881-2004, by Muhammad Abdul-Waseh Al-Khursani - A 2005 field study.
4-Despite the fragility of its infrastructure, climate monitoring in Yemen focuses on nine elements: precipitation, coldness, snow (rarely), temperature, wind, humidity, sea condition, brightness and solar radiation, atmospheric pressure, clouds, and visibility. The Meteorological Center adopts a geographical division of four regions: "the mountainous heights, the coastal areas, the desert areas, and the Socotra Archipelago".
5-Temperature summary for 2021, Yemeni Ministry of Transport - Meteorological Sector
6-“Ten Scientific Information about Tropical Conditions,” Arab Weather website, 30/4/2022.  
7- http://althawrah.ye/archives/86550
http://althawrah.ye/archives/728546
8-Researcher’s notes. More details about the fluctuation and extremes of rainfall can be found on a Facebook page, Yemen's Weather and Rain - Photos and Videos, which includes reports by citizens from all over the country about rain and drought. During writing this study in mid-September, rain was still falling on the southwestern governorates, including Aden, where rain is always rare.
9- https://www.reuters.com/article/oegtp-yemen-floods-mm6-idARACAE4A51AY20081106
10- https://www.saba.ye/ar/news3105194.htm 
11- https://www.alayyam.info/news/86F5QH81-FOIURQ-D58D
12- https://www.alayyam.info/tag/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D9%8A%D9%88%D9%84
13- A statement by the spokesperson for the Supreme Council for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to the Al-Masirah Channel, affiliated with Ansarullah (the Huthis).
14- https://news.un.org/ar/story/2022/08/1109182
15- https://holmakhdar.org/reports/6263/
16- https://www.alayyam.info/news/93EFBHJY-HJ1XL1-0C73
17- “Why is the Arabian Sea Turbulent in June?” by Hasan Abdullah - Arab Weather website, 6/7/2015.
18- According to Wikipedia, there are two types of Kelvin waves: coastal and equatorial. They move along the equator, the first heads west and the second east, which "plays an important role in the dynamics of the Southern Oscillation", by transmitting changes in climatic conditions in the western Pacific Ocean to its east, passing through the Indian Ocean. To learn more about the impact of El Niño and La Niña, see the World Meteorological Organization website: https://public.wmo.int/ar/media

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