by Eman Mounir (Twitter: @mounireman60)
After years of war and extreme droughts, 55-year-old Saleh Ayman abandoned his home in northwest Yemen. He and his family left in search of water, a basic need they no longer had access to. At first he tried to stay. His children even stopped going to school, instead walking to collect water each day. He also spent most of his money buying water, the prices of which far exceeded the minimum wage. In the end, he decided to move to Ibb Governorate, some 400 kilometres away, where an international organisation had restored wells to supply drinking water.
Like Saleh, most people living in areas of conflict are impacted by climate change, studies show. These regions often do not have the resources to mitigate or even recover from these effects, as their countries lack services, including early warning systems. A recent international study published in September 2021 states that, in conflict-affected areas, immediate needs such as protection, peacebuilding and stability are prioritised. Climate change is often viewed as secondary. The study added that conflict areas need larger funding flows. In particular, the funds must target subnational regions experiencing armed conflict, not just the most peaceful regions of a country.
In its latest report, the International Committee of the Red Cross calls for commitments to be made at the UN COP26, to ensure countries in conflict are not neglected and receive proper financing. They also call for recognition that these countries are especially vulnerable to climate risks, because of their limited capacity to adapt. Yemenis like Saleh, suffering from a lack of water and forced to flee in search of it, are among the hardest hit by this situation. Women of Yemen, in particular, are paying the heaviest price for climate change in the midst of war.
Some 2,000 km away, in Palestine, native olive trees — a symbol of resistance and steadfastness in the region — have been affected by climatic change, generating heavy losses for Palestinian farmers. These are their stories.
Since 2015, Yemenis have been living through a long civil war, which has resulted in more than 10,000 dead and millions displaced. But an even deadlier, silent threat lurks: the world’s worst famine, aggravated by drought. Among the countries facing a high risk of water scarcity, Yemen ranks top, with a score of 4.8 out of 5 in the Water Stress Index.
There are many reasons for this crisis: climate change, a sharp population increase, agricultural policies and the lack of government regulation, to name just a few. In particular, drought has been a major problem. The country was exposed to extreme drought at the beginning of the century, which led to the depletion of water in ponds, dams, barriers and running valleys, explains Youssef Al-Makhrafi, environmental researcher at the September 21 University in Yemen. Then, war made it worse. “The water scarcity was also caused by the war on Yemen, resulting from direct bombing of government wells. This led to the bombing of more than 254 government artesian wells,” Al-Makhrafi added. The wells were used for drinking water and irrigation. The government now has no money to restore them, he explained.
As a result, the amount of water is decreasing. In 2018, each person in Yemen used about 85 cubic meters. That figure is set to fall to 65 cubic meters by 2025, according to the Yemeni Ministry of Water and Environment. The global average is 7,500 cubic meters per capita. Consequently, farmers who depended on water from ponds, dams and barriers resorted to digging artesian wells randomly without government oversight. This led to the sinking of groundwater to depths ranging from 700 to 1,200 meters, Al-Makhrafi said. Because of human mismanagement and climate impacts, Sana'a is on its way to becoming the first capital city to declare complete drought, the researcher said.
“Samar was a beautiful 14-year-old girl. Every day we would walk together to Al-Fath school in the village of Al-Jubeen in the Rayma Governorate in Yemen. One morning, when we arrived at school, we heard the news of her death. She had gone to the mountain to fetch water for her family,” recounts Hana Muhammad, one of Samar’s neighbours. The women of Yemen are paying the highest price for the water shortage problem resulting from climate change, as the process of collecting water falls on their shoulders. They often have to walk for hours on dangerous paths in order to collect drinking water. A 2019 report by the United Nations confirms that women and children are responsible for collecting water, which means travelling longer distances and facing additional threats to their safety and dignity.
“Samar is neither the first nor the last girl to meet this fate,” Hana added. In previous years, she witnessed the deaths of more than 20 women while carrying water from the mountain. Women and girls are used to walking for two and a half hours a day to fetch water from wells in distant mountains, she said. “The path to the mountain is very dangerous and rugged. Because it is so narrow, there is only space for the feet of one girl. If her feet slip, she will fall to her death,” Hana said. The journey is sometimes necessary because of the high water prices. Since the beginning of the war in 2015, the price has exceeded the minimum salary ($50 US), making the situation more difficult for the local population.
Those who cannot afford to buy water, often go to another city in search of it, according to Al-Makhrafi. Sana’a — whose population, according to the 2004 census, was about two million — now has more than five million inhabitants as a result of migration from the countryside to the cities, with the cities of Sana’a and Hodeidah particularly affected by this phenomenon.
A few hundred kilometres away, climate impacts are taking their toll on a neighbouring region. The issue in these two cases is similar: neither Sana’a nor its neighbouring region caused the climate crisis, but both are facing some of the worst impacts.
To the northwest of the West Bank in Palestine, in the city of Tulkarm, farmer Hussam Youssef (66 years old) is grieving for his olive harvest this year. His production did not exceed 11 tanks of oil. Youssef used to produce about 45 tanks a year, each containing 16 litres of olive oil. But high temperatures and delayed rainfall affected production, he says. Youssef has not seen production this bad in all his 30 years as a farmer. “I used to depend on olive production to pay my children's university fees, buy what we need for the home, and still have a financial reserve for the family in the coming months. This year's production will not cover anything. I still don't know how I will manage on crumbs,” he added.
Youssef is not the only farmer suffering under these conditions. According to the testimonies of three others like him, the productivity of the olive crop has been declining for five years, until reaching its lowest point in 2021, due to the high temperature and the lack of rainfall. Much like Yemen, Palestine is also facing extreme climate change.
The Head of the National Institute for Environment and Development (NIED) in Gaza and an expert in environmental affairs, Ahmed Hilles, said that “due to the high temperatures, the atmospheric pressure changed, causing the intensity, speed and direction of the wind to change, and thus also the speed and intensity of rains, to the point where Palestinian farmers no longer knew how to time the cultivation of their crops, resulting in the destruction of agricultural, particularly field crops.”. According to Hilles, the amount of rainfall in Palestine has fallen over the past 15 years, decreasing by 22 per cent in the West Bank from 535 to 400 mm and by 12 per cent or from 450 to 320 mm in Gaza, wreaking havoc on the region's food security. Temperatures in the region are expected to climb by 1.8 to 5.1 degrees Celsius over this century, according to scientists. And rainfall is expected to plummet by up to 30 per cent during the next century.
War is also a problem here. Ahmed Hilles reported that, as a result of Israel’s heavy bombing of the Gaza Strip, such as during the recent war in May 2021, all the different components of the environment, including water, soil and air, are destroyed. “The Palestinian environment is profoundly impacted by the wars, and in particular the olive trees pay the heaviest price because of the policies of the occupation authorities or the effects of climate change,” he said.
The olive tree has long been considered a symbol of tradition, resistance and Palestinian steadfastness against the Israeli occupation. But it is now facing the impacts of extreme weather. Olive trees are most affected by climate change due to their dependence on rainfall rather than groundwater, a 2014 study showed.
Olive trees in Palestine are considered one of the country’s main agricultural products, with the percentage of olive trees in cultivated areas estimated at 85.3 per cent of all trees planted in the occupied Palestinian territory. As a result, the olive sector accounts for 15 per cent of total agricultural income. The number of olive trees is estimated at 11 million. The sector provides income for 100,000 Palestinian families in the West Bank and Gaza, according to Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture reports.
The impact of high temperatures and the lack of olive trees on food insecurity is becoming ever more severe. This can be seen in the percentage of Palestinian families suffering from food insecurity, which reached approximately 26 per cent in Palestine . (46 per cent in the Gaza Strip and 16.3 per cent in the West Bank). “The poor Palestinian families are paying the emissions bill of the major countries. The situation is exacerbated by the presence of the Israeli occupation, which is causing the Palestinian lands to shrink due to war,” Hilles said. Official Palestinian statistics indicate that the conflict has led to the uprooting of more than 15,000 trees in the West Bank since the beginning of 2021, due to the fact that they were located in military training areas or on bypass roads, for instance.
This symbol of hope has survived decades of conflict. However, as the world enters a new crisis, Palestine’s olives now suffer in silence. Here, in a country which caused such a small amount of emissions, the climate crisis is having the most devastating effects.
Eman Mounir is an independent investigative journalist from Egypt. Keenly interested in scientific, environmental, and feminist stories, she’s received an award in New Media from the University of Bournemouth in the UK, and other award in scientific journalism from the German Goethe Institute. She’s currently nominated for the True Story Prize in Switzerland, and previously nominated for Thomson Foundation’s Young Journalist Award. Eman studied Data Journalism with a 6-month diploma by ICFJ and ARIJ Network for Investigative Journalism. Currently, she is a fellow to ONE WORLD MEDIA foundation in United Kingdom.