National water authorities and a host of international development actors were warning that unless urgent steps were taken, water resources in the Sana’a basin could disappear. One report said the city’s 4.2 million residents could become “water refugees by 2025”.
Long-term declines in rainfall. A growing population. Increasing cultivation of water-intensive crops. Mismanagement of water resources and inefficient water systems. All these factors have been causing water tables beneath the city to shrink by roughly three to four metres per year.
Before the war, numerous international agencies were working with the Yemeni government on ambitious, multimillion-dollar plans to reduce agricultural water use, improve water collection and cut down waste in urban water systems.
Today, there are only urgent calls for humanitarian action: impending famine caused by drought and conflict; 800,000 people infected with cholera; mass casualties on a daily basis; cities under siege; malnutrition; aid blockades; and energy cuts that allow people to pump water for only a few hours a day.
“The economy is in freefall so to remain economically active, people are turning to water-thirsty crops that deplete the water table even further,” says Johannes Bruwer, head of delegation for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Yemen. “It’s a perfect storm for creating long-term water problems.”
Along with shortages of fuel, which make water production and transport of goods expensive, the shortage of water is hurting a critical part of the Yemeni economy. “People cannot work in agriculture the way they used to,” says Dr. Moosa Elayah, a Yemeni researcher with the Center for International Development Issues in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. “Food prices are completely beyond what anyone can afford.”
Even highly developed countries in times of peace are hard pressed to tackle these challenges. But Yemen’s ongoing war has pushed sustainable solutions off the table.
“We are facing starvation level in many parts of the country and I think it will get even worse with climate change,” says Elayah.
Climate change can exacerbate vulnerabilities brought about by conflict
Yemen is not alone. Across the Middle East and other regions strongly impacted by conflict and climate change, similar stories are unfolding. Unpredictable weather patterns, including prolonged heatwaves, droughts and floods, are exacerbating already horrendous situations for people living under siege, displaced by conflict, forced into migration, confined in detention or living in cities that host large numbers of displaced people.
It’s a sword that cuts two ways: as climate change makes it more difficult for people to cope with the hardships of war, conflict makes it almost impossible for people to adapt to climate change.
“Conflict is where vulnerability to climate change is especially high,” says Maarten van Aalst, director of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre in The Hague, Netherlands. “A climate-related shock has a much bigger effect on farmers in a conflict zone than it would in a stable, diversified economy where they would have crop insurance, subsidies and social security systems.”
In countries with conflict, safety nets for farmers often evaporate just as climate change makes the environment even harsher for agriculture, notes Michael Mason, director of the Middle East Centre of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Rainfall is diminishing while ground temperatures are rising. The problem is that as temperatures rise, food crops require more water to grow.
“There are technological means of overcoming temperature- and precipitation-based impacts on agriculture,” says Mason. “But many countries in the region lack the economic development and political stability to invest in those solutions.”
Mason and other experts warn against blaming the region’s water woes on climate change alone. Leaking water systems, over-pumping of water from aquifers, contamination of existing sources from waste water or agricultural run-off are just some of the factors causing far greater impact on available water supplies.
Changing climate patterns
Climate change also means that in many conflict zones, weather patterns are less stable. The arid Lake Chad region, for example, has been getting hotter and drier for some time while seasonal rains no longer come when expected. When they do come, they are more intense. Dry periods, meanwhile, are getting longer.
“Without conflict, people would be better able to cope when the rains don’t come on time,” says Janani Vivekananda, a researcher with Adelphi, a Berlin-based think tank commissioned by the European Union to study the insecurity risks associated with climate change.
“In the past, if crops failed, the landowner might agree to let the farmer pay after the next crop cycle,” she says. “Now, because so much land is inaccessible due to the fighting, landowners can’t wait for their money. So the farmers have to pay even when crops fail. But how are they going to pay?”
In some areas, traditional dispute-resolution systems have been rendered non-functional, while customary laws about who can fish or farm where and when have also been disrupted, says Vivekananda. To survive the hard times, people sometimes cope by cutting down forests to make charcoal, provide sex for food or join armed groups, according to reports Adelphi provided to the European Union.
So what happens when the global climate continues to get even warmer, as many climate experts foresee? In a series of reports in 2018, climate scientists predict that global warming will have particularly harsh consequences for places such as the Middle East, North Africa and the Sahel, where temperature rises are outpacing the global average.
Some worry that climate change will exacerbate conflict over resources or lead to mass migration, or both, particularly where community or government coping mechanisms are weak. There is no consensus and much scepticism among security experts as to whether climate issues have played — or will play — a principle role in causing conflict.
But for humanitarian organizations, it is becoming increasingly clear that vulnerabilities caused by the overlap of climate change and conflict will grow even more severe. The question then becomes: how should humanitarian organizations prepare for and adapt to a future conflict zones will get hotter, drier and more susceptible to shocks such as floods, sandstorm, heatwaves and drought?
“The humanitarian response tends to be short term and humanitarian organizations often don’t think about the full environmental impact of their interventions,” says Adelphi’s Vivekananda, pointing to one recent example in the Lake Chad region.
“Humanitarian organizations provided plenty of food, but they did not provide fuel to cook the food,” she says. “So there was massive deforestation as people searched for sources of fuel. This degraded the landscape and worsened desertification, exposing people even more to sandstorms and floods.”
Similarly, the response of drilling more wells to meet the urgent need for water during emergencies also has consequences, says Michael Talhami, a policy expert for the ICRC who has worked for years in the Middle East.
“We now don’t drill wells unless we can justify it based on an understanding of the local hydrology, and we are sure it will not do irreparable harm to local water tables,” says Talhami, adding that drilling more wells in water-depleted areas can cause other wells and springs to dry up or for the water source to become contaminated. “Of course, in conflict, it is often difficult if not impossible to do extensive hydrological studies.”
In Yemen, this issue is brought into stark relief. “Normally, drilling a well would require a permit and a study so as not to over-tap the aquifer,” says Bruwer. “What we’ve seen in Yemen is a large-scale violation of this with people drilling boreholes left and right.”
The result is not only a receding water table, but in some parts of the country, the contamination of the water supply. As more fresh water was pumped out, salt water from the ocean slowly seeped in, rendering many wells useless.
Some of this over-drilling was done by well-intentioned humanitarian organizations. But much of it started earlier, as Yemen became more industrialized in the 1970s and people, farms and businesses bought their own water pumps. Age-old customs of regulation through local imams and local leaders fell apart.
With conflict now creating a further state of lawlessness, “we made a conscious decision to systematically reinforce the water authority’s role and work on sustainable solutions”, says Bruwer.
Forcing a change
For the ICRC, climate change reinforced an approach evolving over the past two decades as conflict became increasingly prolonged and urban: working with local water authorities to repair, upgrade or replace ageing pumps, pipes, booster stations and water-treatment facilities.
Climate change is also adding weight to calls for multi-year planning and financing so international and local organizations can accompany communities over longer periods to develop more durable solutions to very complex and interconnected challenges.
Given the broad impact of climate change and conflict any meaningful solution will require a comprehensive, massive and long-term investment. All players (including development banks, international governmental bodies, national governments, community organizations) will need to be involved.
The contribution of the humanitarian sector will be critical as it offers a safety net during times of extreme vulnerability. In comparison with the overall investment needed to build resilience to climate chane and conflict, it will be a drop in the bucket.
Still, humanitarian actors with experience in conflict zones can help influence those who hold the bigger buckets in terms of funding and influence over aid strategy.
How money in these buckets will be spent could have a significant impact on strengthening the resilience of essential services and communities to conflict and climate shocks. Will water, power and sanitation systems be rebuilt in a more resilient manner, based on the experience of humanitarians? Or will they follow standard, centralized models that make sense in peacetime, but are extremely vulnerable during conflict (i.e. if one part of the system is damaged, the whole system goes down).
For Mawanda Shaban, policy and resilience advisor for the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, one critical first step is to simply to put climate change on the agenda in places where people are talking about conflict — and vice versa. To date, the two issues are not fully linked in regional and global security, environment and disaster risk reduction platforms. “We are trying hard to influence the global discussion,” he says.
As this debate unfolds, one thorny issue for humanitarians will be maintaining important principles — particularly independence and neutrality — if they partner more closely with other players in the sustainable development agenda. In many contexts, redevelopment and early recovery efforts are closely tied to political and economic forces with a stake in the conflict. Might working closely with development actors, UN agencies, states or coalitions of states cause others to doubt the humanitarian organizations’ impartiality and motives?
However humanitarians navigate this issue, understanding the dynamics between climate change and conflict will likely become an increasingly urgent matter as temperatures continue to rise and conflicts drag on and on.
“It’s a bit like the frog in the pot of boiling water,” says the ICRC’s Bruwer. “The climate is heating up but it’s happening slowly, so people do not always notice the changes. But it’s very important to keep an eye on it so we can keep adapting and acting before it’s too late.”
A hotter planet: more armed conflict?
Climate change may be making warfare harder to endure, but most experts say it is not a primary cause of armed conflict. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be in the future.