In Yemen, cities spared from war fall prey to climate change
While the Arab republic has made headlines in recent years for conflict, cholera and famine, its people are also living on the front lines of global warming
When a barrage of cyclone warnings reached this small city in southeastern Yemen last month, school custodian Alabed Salmeen Omar thought little of them.
He had good reason. Omar and his family lived inside the walls of the school grounds, in a structure built of rock and cement.
The cyclone, the warnings said, could trigger flash floods and strong winds, and residents of the city of Ghaida were advised to take refuge in higher elevation areas and to avoid crossing flood zones.
But the nearest waterway was 300 meters from the school and previous flash floods had not posed any threat. The family did nothing to prepare.
The disaster came suddenly.
First, the rain poured for 48 hours straight. Then, flash floods swept into the schoolyard. Morning came and the water level surged. Omar took his wife and eight children to the second floor. There they waited helplessly for hours, watching the water rise.
“I never thought the flood would reach the school,” confessed the 53-year-old, standing barefoot and wearing a scruffy shirt and sarong.
“Elderly people say they have never seen a flood like this,” he told Asia Times.
On that afternoon in mid-October, amateur rescuers managed to reach Omar and his family, evacuating them on two boats. The flood had ravaged the school walls and pushed gobs of mud and water into the classrooms.
A new front line
Mahra, Yemen’s easternmost province bordering Oman, has been largely untouched by the ongoing conflict.
It is not a battleground for the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition, which supports the government forces.
But like the neighboring province of Hadhramaut and the remote Yemeni island of Socotra, Mahra is on the front lines of climate change.
A succession of destructive storms have pummeled the province in recent years, leaving dozens dead and missing, and thousands displaced.
In the past six months alone, southern regions facing the Arabian Sea have been hit by three cyclones. Sagar and Mekunu swept through in May, and then in October, for the first time, cyclone Luban flooded Omar’s school.
Flash floods have washed away homes and infrastructure, from water networks to electrical towers to bridges.
During the last three cyclones, the island of Socotra was cut off from the mainland for several days as heavy winds and large-scale flooding deluged roads and destroyed cell phone towers.
Back at the school in Ghaida, deputy principal Sheikha Fayel says last month’s flooding created a new stream, placing the school on its bank and making the building vulnerable to future floods.
“In the wake of the last flood, we could not use the school for three weeks. The mud and water overwhelmed the school’s ground floor,” Sheikha told Asia Times, covered from head to toe in a black abaya.
“We need help to fix the electricity and water, rebuild the school’s walls, and build defenses to protect the school from floods in future,” she said.
The idea of climate change and its destructive consequences does not hold sway for many people in Ghaida, who attribute the surge in destructive downpours to God’s discontent.
The custodian, Alabed Salmeen Omar, who did not have a formal education, believes the increasing number of cyclones and heavy storms are divine punishment for “injustice, corruption, high prices of food, and grudges.”
“The flood washed away my TV, mobile phone, washing machine and other things,” he said, showing where he was standing when the floodwaters stormed the school.
His view is shared by the deputy principal, Sheikha, who teaches social science. “This is God’s wrath,” she said.
Salem Al Saqqaf, an aid worker who runs a charitable foundation in Ghaida, admits that he and many other residents only decided to flee their homes when they saw the flooding firsthand.
“We thought it was a false alarm like many previous ones. But when the flood began to encircle my house, I fled to a hotel with my family. My relatives took refuge inside a health facility,” he told Asia Times in an interview at his office.
“We distributed more than 80,000 meals in the first days of the cyclone. We managed to reach the displaced people before the state.”
Outside Saqqaf’s office stand several beautiful villas. But they are unfit for habitation as floods destroyed their fences and eroded their foundations, leaving them standing on dunes of sand.
The drive from Ghaida city to Mukalla, the capital of neighboring Hadhramaut province, once took seven hours, but now it takes nearly 10, as most of its bridges have been washed away over the past three years.
The governor of Hadhramaut, Major General Faraj Salmeen Al Bahsani, says intense cyclones have taken a major toll on the region infrastructure.
“The climate has changed radically,” Bahsani told Asia Times in his office. “The infrastructure is poor and was not designed to withstand cyclones and storms,” he added.
Despite enjoying peace and security, the main streets of Mukalla are ruined and bridges that link the city with other areas are still damaged.
“To repair those bridges, we need millions of dollars, which we do not have. We struggle to generate cash for electricity and fuel” as it is.
Yemen’s state meteorological department, located in the Houthi-held capital, is in charge of cyclone warnings. But due to the war that has divided the country, local authorities and residents increasingly rely on their own early warning centers.
In Mukalla, amateur meteorologists Abdul Rahman Hamed and Hussein Al Amoudi created their own center in May 2017.
The two friends do not have a meteorological satellite or a processing station, or even high-speed Internet. But Hamed, an architect, has taken courses in meteorology, and the two have made it their mission to monitor the increasingly devastating weather patterns through any source they can.
When Hamed and Amoudi hear about unusual movements of clouds and winds in the Indian Ocean, they scramble to their poorly equipped office in Mukalla.
Since 1996, Hamed says cyclones and tropical storms have traveled beyond India and Pakistan to Yemen with increased frequency and intensity. He calls 2015 a “radical year” because two cyclones hit Yemen.
But this year, three cyclones slashed through Yemen, ravaging cities that had been spared from the war.
Ahead of each storm, the Mukalla center does its best to warn residents of the danger via radio and Whatsapp. Hamed says his office could save far more lives if it was supported with advanced equipment.
“We are the alarm bell that warns people about cyclones,” he said.
On Sunday, the center sent out a new warning. The fourth cyclone of 2018, Gaja, was on its way.