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After Operation Decisive Storm, bigger storms lie ahead for Yemen

For over three weeks Saudi aircraft rained bombs upon the impoverished country of Yemen during Operation Decisive Storm. The mission concluded officially on 21 April but as airstrikes continue and fighting still rages, other storms are brewing that threaten the population as a whole and could further strain a deepening water crisis in the arid country.

Over the years, a handful of meteorologist at the Civil Aviation and Meteorological Authority (CAMA) have been tracking an increase in dust storm severity throughout Yemen. "The dust storms are multiplying and getting stronger," warns Rasheed Al-Areqi, Director of Meteorological Forecasting at CAMA. "They are spreading across a wider area. As a result of the climate changing we expect this to happen throughout the year, except for November."

For Al-Areqi, the intensification of the dust storms is an alarming trend that poses serious risks to everything from beehives to fisheries. "This phenomenon has consequences and it causes lung and eye illnesses because it brings dangerous residue," he explained. Included in this are the remains of municipal waste dumps, which are incinerated in the deserts where the sand storms originate. "Sediments are carried with the dust and they land on the wells and most of the wells in Yemen are open to the air so they are open to the dust. This causes many sicknesses because of these dangerous and poisonous particulates."

Many of these storms cross into Yemen from Saudi Arabia and generally subside when they reach the country's southern coast, but even this may be changing. As the storms intensify they have begun to cross the sea towards Somalia, damaging marine life along the way. "When these dust waves precipitate in the sea it precipitates on the coral reefs and affects the fish," says Al-Areqi. "The fish don't find anything to eat, which reduces the fishery stocks."

The winds of change

While dust storms pose a heightened threat from the north, weather conditions potentially more dangerous are brewing to the south. CAMA has noted that tropical storms such as cyclones are also growing in intensity in the Arabian Gulf. According to Al-Areqi, these cyclones have become more numerous and stronger, and thus more destructive, since the 1970s. Between these swelling storms, climate change has confronted Yemen with one of its most challenging climatic decades on record.

On October 27, 2008, a powerful cyclone slammed into Yemen causing $1.6 billion in damage, displacing 25,000 and affecting the livelihoods of up to 700,000 people. Two years later, another cyclone hit Yemen's Socotra Archipelago, a nature reserve and UN World Heritage Site. In 2012, a dust storm called "The Ghost" swept through the Arabian Peninsula reducing visibility and disrupting air traffic. "It was the biggest dust storm that ever happened in the history of the Arabic region," Al-Areqi points out. Then, in 2014, tropical cyclone Nanauk nearly crashed into Yemen's seaboard but changed course at the last second.

The effects of these tropical storms can plague the countryside even after they have dissipated. "We have another issue with the locusts, they cause a lot of damage," says Al-Areqi. "Due to the weather, these insects stay in the desert and when it rains it causes them to spawn." Sometimes torrential rain breeds massive swarms of insects that ravish the rural farmlands, decimating agricultural yields.

Water sustainability impact

As one of the World's ten most water scarce countries, Yemen's shifting weather patterns could compound a deepening water crisis. At the ministry of water and environment, the effects of climate change are complicating the efforts to enhance the water supply through initiatives like rainwater harvesting. "We are expecting that climate change will affect our rainfall rate, will decrease it in many areas and will change the seasonal scheduling of rainfall," said Abdulkhaleq Alwan. "Such variance will also create several occasions of drought and sometimes flooding in some cities," added the Senior Water Strategies and Policy Expert at the ministry.

To make matters worse, 2015 is set to be the most challenging year yet for Yemen's water sector due to the civil conflict, a lack of funds and the expiration of the national water strategy. "After 2015 there is no national strategic plan in Yemen for the whole water sector so this will be a serious challenge," notes Alwan. "After 2015 no agencies or subsectors will work according to a strategic plan."


Underfunded and ill-equipped, Yemen's meteorologists are fighting their own battle to deal with the impacts of the changing climate. "We have deficiencies in so many aspects of our work," said Mohammad Hamid Said, Assistant Deputy Director at CAMA. "For example, we don't have sufficient observers or forecasters. Jordan has a territory of 92,000 km2 and 49 forecasters, while Yemen has 555,000 km2 but only nine forecasters. We work under stress."

Rasheed Al-Areqi added that CAMA also lacks a sufficient number of meteorology stations. "That's why we need two things: stations and training. Especially, we don't have a single radar. We can make predictions for [only] two weeks ahead."

Without political stability it is unlikely that Yemen's meteorology or water ministries will be able to secure the funding they need to cope with the effects of climate change. "The government has already suspended all finance provided to the activities or projects," lamented Alwan. "The same has been done by donors… it's a dramatic situation."

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

ArticleMiddle EastOpinionSaudi ArabiaYemen
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