The historic decision taken at the COP27 climate change conference to set up a “loss and damage” fund for those most vulnerable to the climate crisis is a massive win for developing nations, but Yemeni policy makers need to start preparing now to make sure Yemen receives its fair share. After wealthy countries conceded to putting the question of compensation on the table, the next battle will be over who pays into the fund and who is eligible for financial help. Participation in the negotiations in Sharm el-Sheikh was undertaken by a small Yemeni delegation, which was largely unable to make its voice heard. This will be a problem if the government does not prioritize the issue ahead of the climate summit in Dubai next year, when clamor for access to the fund will begin. UN estimates of developing countries’ total needs are daunting. Adapting to the climate crisis – from building sea walls to planting drought-resistant crops – could cost anything from US$140 to 340 billion a year by 2030, and more by 2050 if climate change accelerates.
Attention is currently focused on limiting global warming to 1.5°C through emissions cuts from major polluters such as China and the United States. COP27 saw the approval of new projects to develop early warning systems to detect climate events and construct a satellite system to monitor methane levels. Affluent nations are predictably mostly concerned with the impact of extreme temperatures, flooding, storms, and rising sea levels at home – storms in America, drought in Europe, wildfires in Australia. The impact on a war-torn country like Yemen could easily fall by the wayside if its case is not sufficiently made, even within the context of a loss and damage fund. The government’s limited capacity and the volatile politics and violence of the civil war create a huge risk that the country could lose out on desperately needed assistance as it addresses more immediate threats.
The environmental problems facing Yemen are formidable. Yemen ranks 171 out of 182 countries on the ND-GAIN index, which assesses vulnerability and readiness to adapt to climate change. Most of Yemen’s 30 million people continue to live in rural settings that are highly vulnerable to erratic weather patterns, while the country contributes relatively little to global emissions. Models forecast a change in annual average rainfall of -7 to +69 percent by the year 2100, with temperatures expected to rise by 1.2-1.9°C by 2050 and 1.5-2.3°C by 2100. Cycles of flooding and drought could critically impact the country’s already fraught ability to feed itself and increase reliance on imports of basic food commodities. Yemen is already almost totally reliant on foreign wheat and rice.
Torrential rain is causing more and more havoc. Floods in 2008 caused 180 deaths, displaced 10,000 people, and caused infrastructure damage estimated at US$1.64 billion dollars – 6 percent of GDP. Agricultural production dropped 15 percent. In 2015, Cyclone Chapala became the first recorded hurricane-force storm to strike land in Yemen, causing major flooding on the southern coast and forcing 18,750 people to flee inland, according to the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation. At the same time, desertification of existing agriculture affects 3 to 5 percent of land per year in some regions of the country and could persist or worsen. There are other looming challenges too: coastal erosion, resettlement of displaced communities, and the threat to low-lying coastal wetlands from rising sea levels.
Yemen is one of the most water-scarce countries in the world. Climate change is one of a number of reasons for the depletion of underground aquifers, alongside the proliferation of qat, unchecked population growth, and poor water management. Rising sea levels have caused seawater to leak into coastal aquifers, contaminating municipal water supplies and damaging agriculture. Falling groundwater levels since the 1970s have forced many farmers to abandon their lands in places such as the Sa’ada basin. Higher temperatures will increase water evaporation rates, and the extra rains brought by climate instability will not be enough to prevent the depletion of aquifers. In 2010, the World Bank estimated that groundwater reserves could be completely gone as early as 2040 – a scenario that would require heavy reliance on desalination, which is expensive, problematic for agriculture, and is itself environmentally problematic.
A range of other problems follow from these crises. The unique ecosystem of Socotra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is under threat from extreme storms and drought. Heavy rainfall and flooding has damaged around 1,000 houses in the Old City of Sana’a, another World Heritage Site, and crippled services and utilities. Yemen’s 3,000-year-old beekeeping industry has suffered as rising temperatures inhibit pollination, while falling water tables, desertification, and the war are forcing many apiarists to quit the ancient practice. Indeed, war complicates every aspect of managing climate change in Yemen, as environmental degradation in turn threatens to fuel further conflict at every level of society. One study by researchers at Sana’a University found that water was a factor in most rural conflicts. Dams, reservoirs, and water pipes have all been damaged during the fighting since 2015, leading to accusations of the “weaponization of water” by the warring parties.
Serious work is required to press these issues at COP28 and make Yemen’s case to the international community. There is also a need to engage donors on the question of climate change and the fragile nature of Yemen’s situation. The government must use its close relationship with the UAE, the host of the next climate summit, to ensure that negotiations over the loss and damage fund are hammered out in full and that Yemen features on its agenda. The government must be ready to respond to accusations of past mismanagement and questions about its ability to implement environmental initiatives in the midst of conflict. Ideally, a joint position could be worked out with Houthi authorities. If necessary, the government should point out that any future climate crises in Yemen are likely to spill over its borders through the displacement of populations. Worse, they could exacerbate or reignite the animosities and competition driving the current conflict. Helping Yemen mitigate the impact of climate change will contribute not only to national peace and stability, but also regional security, a fact that Yemen’s neighbors and potential benefactors would do well to keep in mind.