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The reverberating effects of explosive violence on agriculture in Yemen

Yemen is enduring the world’s worst humanitarian crisis with 80% of the population, 24.1 million people, in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. Half of them are on the brink of starvation.

The current conflicts in Yemen involve multifarious layers of tensions amassed over decades at both the local and international levels. Yemen, along with other Arab countries, erupted with popular uprising in the 2011 Arab Spring. The long serving president Ali Abdullah Saleh was replaced by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) backed government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. However, further incompetence and corruption led former president Saleh together with the Houthis, one of the many disenfranchised groups, to form an alliance and take control of Sana’a in 2014. Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia, sparking the Saudi-led coalition’s military intervention. Their stated aim is to restore Hadi to power, but behind this objective, there are also the varying strategic, economic and sectarian motives of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

On 26 March 2015, ‘Operation Decisive Storm’ was announced and the Saudi-led coalition, involving the UAE, Egypt, Somalia and others, with the support of the US and Britain, began its aerial bombardment.

Five years, and over 21,486 air raids later, the war rages on. The Saudi-led coalition and its complicit supporters have violated laws-of-war prohibitions on restricting humanitarian assistance and on destroying objects essential to the survival of the civilian population. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, they have orchestrated deliberate attacks on Yemen’s already decaying infrastructure and production capacity to undermine popular support for the Houthis.

These violations, as well as their disregard for the reported suffering of the civilian population, suggest that they may also be violating the prohibition against using starvation as a method of warfare.

Half a decade of war has cost an estimated 60,000 deaths, with thousands of people starving to death and dying from preventable diseases; an average of eight civilians die from bombs and bullets everyday.

Yemen’s Agriculture

Yemen is known for its extensive terrace farms and its tradition of farming dry land and irrigated farms over the past three millennia. However, like Syria, Yemen’s agricultural industry was impacted by the adoption of Washington Consensus neoliberal policies. Indigenous knowledge and agricultural expertise were disregarded in favour of cheap US wheat imports and mass Yemeni migration around the Gulf. This contributed to halving the rain-fed terraced areas between 1975-1990.

Prior to oil related jobs, most Yemenis worked in subsistence-level farming, which still supplies almost 70% of the population with livelihoods: Sorghum, drought-resistant cereal, as well as potatoes, wheat, corn and chickpeas. Unfortunately, even before the war, domestic production did not supply enough for the rapidly growing population and 90% of its food had to be imported.

Yemen’s reliance on imports has made it very vulnerable to the international price of food, and it has had to spend staggering amounts during the war. In 2013 large portions of its GDP (of $36 billion) were spent on food imports; $363 million for rice and $1 billion for wheat.

This dependence on importing food, as well as medicine and fuel, has meant the Coalition’s bombing and blockading immensely hamper the delivery of any aid, even from UN-verified ships.

A considerable 70% of Yemen’s food is imported through the port of Hodeidah. In 2015 it was bombed by the Coalition, destroying its warehouses and four cranes, rendering it useless, with new cranes not arriving until 2018.

In June 2018, before the Coalition launched their attack on the city of Hodeidah, health, water and sanitation centres to the south of the city were bombed. The UN humanitarian coordinator said that Saudi airstrikes destroyed the sanitation and water station, which supplies the majority of the water for the city. This comes at a time when Yemen has the largest recorded cholera outbreak in history. The central fish market and the entrance to the hospital were also bombed.

Mundy’s research finds that the bombing of Hodeidah governorate has been particularly harmful to industries. It has important roads, port transport, industrial enterprises such as plastics, food processing and water bottling, as well as fishing and agricultural infrastructure. She suggests that this is part of the economic war Saudi and the UAE are waging; the Emirates in particular are trying to control seaports, for trade, tourism and fish wealth.

This is in contrast to Saudi’s previous targets in Sana’a and Sa’dah governorates, which were more rural. From June 2015, rural Sa’dah began to be targeted; by October 2015 this had expanded to bombing wider areas, multiple governorates, and objects indispensible for surviving in rural areas. This is evidenced by the fact that two-thirds of the total number of IDPs are from the rural population, who have then had to settle in urban suburbs.

Data provided by the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation (MAI), from March 2015- August 2016, shows that targeting has been systematic. This includes farms and agricultural lands that were targeted 180 separate times, 77 animals and animal farms and 53 agricultural and irrigation offices. In total there were 462 individual strikes on objects crucial to rural livelihoods; these include water and transportation infrastructure and similar important elements. Unfortunately, by taking into account the data from the Yemen Data Project (YDP), MAI’s data is more conservative, with the targets likely to be much higher.

Besides bombing indispensible objects, attacks on houses, cultural sites, weddings and funerals have also continued through to 2020. At the beginning of the coronavirus lockdowns in March 2020, the YDP recorded 227 bombings, almost a 50% rise from February. They have continued to drop during lockdowns, with 271 air raids in June 2020. In total, there have been 6,487 air raids on non-military targets, 7,720 on unknown targets and 684 on farms. With only 2.8% of Yemen’s land cultivated, most of which includes small mountain terrace farms, to hit the cultivated area, it has to be specifically targeted.

[Yemen’s terraced farms, on Haraz Mountains. Rod Waddington, https://www.flickr.com/photos/rod_waddington/11462929855/]

Saudi bombing has included the targeting of cows, sheep and goats as well as fields of sorghum, which can be used for bread or animal fodder. The targeting of farm animals is hugely distressing. They are not only used to produce meat, milk and useful manure, but are crucial to crop operations, as they are sold at the start of a cultivation cycle to pay for seeds and equipment. They essentially act as capital for rural residents, who do not have access to contemporary finance, and who depend on selling them during a ‘hunger gap’, before the start of next season’s crop harvest. Families whose farm animals have been killed may not survive this year’s ‘hunger gap’.   

The region of Tihama, Yemen’s breadbasket, has also been targeted. This includes Tihama Development Authority’s water diversion structures, built to assist upstream landowners. From August -October 2015 there were several strikes, more followed in 2016, and three more in early 2017. These strikes, along with issues of fuel price and lack of financial support from state extension services, have caused yields to decrease by 42% in wadi Zabid and 46% in wadi Siham. Despite Tihama’s role as the main supplier of food, 43% of people go hungry every night and land cultivation has decreased by 51%.

Fuel shortages exacerbated by the blockades, such as the one mentioned on the port of Hodiedeh, have prevented farmers using their petrol-driven lift-pump equipment for irrigation use. Fuel prices have soared by 200% in 2018 compared to the 2010 prices, impacting agriculture, water supply, transport, electricity, health and sanitation services.

The Saudi bombing campaign has also extensively targeted the fishing industry.

By the end of 2017, the Ministry of Fishing Wealth reported that every fish off-loading port had been targeted. The destruction of loading ports has a massive impact because Yemen relies on maritime imports for more than 80% of its annual staple food supplies.

According the report, 220 fishing boats had also been destroyed and 146 named fishermen had been killed. The Red Sea coastal area makes up the entire artisanal fishing in Yemen and therefore all the total fish products. As a result, 4,586 boats have stopped their fishing due to the fear of being targeted, contributing to 36,688 fishermen losing their income. Fishery production has completely collapsed in the Taʿizz and Hajja governorates. These attacks from the Saudi-led coalition not only include aerial bombardment, but also firing from ships and Apache helicopters.

Britain’s war

It should be noted that both the US and the UK operate in the command-and-control centre for Coalition airstrikes.

Under a UK government contract, BAE Systems provide “in-country” services with 6,300 British contractors working at Saudi’s bases of operations. According to a former BAE employee, they complete all the undertakings for operating the bombing campaign. This includes supplying and maintaining the jets, weapons and ammunitions, as well as supervising the loading of the bombs, and everything else except the actual dropping of the bomb itself, which is carried out by British-trained Saudi pilots.

Arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia in 2014-2018 included 56 combat aircraft from the US and 38 from the UK. Planned deliveries for 2019-2023 include 98 combat aircraft, seven missile defence systems and 83 tanks from the US. Meanwhile, since 2016, Germany and Sweden and several other European countries have suspended arm sales to Saudi Arabia.

Britain’s role in the bombing campaign is so significant that if the BAE Typhoon fighter jet factory in Warton, Lancashire stopped providing essential parts for the Saudi air force, it is likely Saudi Arabia would be unable to continue bombing. Declassified UK found that Saudi’s bombing is so intensive that new jet parts from the factory in Warton are flown over weekly.

The Houthi’s war

Whilst Saudi Arabia and the UAE have the wealth to afford the world’s most sophisticated military hardware, the Houthis produce domestically-made landmines, IEDs and Mortars.

Their targeting has also been indiscriminate involving the use of explosive violence in densely populated areas.

Gradually their arsenal is improving as Iran increases its support for them. Hence their growing ability to launch ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia and the UAE. However, most of these have been shot down by missile defence systems.

The Houthis have mined large swaths of land in the southwest to prevent Coalition proxy forces from advancing. Unfortunately, demining is currently focused on roads and strategic infrastructure, with little focus on the fields, thus putting farmers and children at great risk.

Conclusion

The UK and US complicity in contributing to the catastrophe in Yemen, despite both Congressional and Parliamentary knowledge of the reality on the ground, highlights their abhorrent disregard for international law. Their actions in Yemen also add to the depressing pattern of the UK and US destruction of livelihoods around the Middle East through the use of explosive violence.

UNICEF warns that unless US$54.5 million is received for health and nutrition services by the end of August, 23,500 children with severe acute malnutrition will be at increased risk of dying and five million children under the age of five years will not be immunised against killer diseases; 19 million people will lose access to healthcare, including one million pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and their children. With the continuation of the use of starvation as a method of warfare and the spread of COVID-19 in Yemen, there are fears that the remaining half of its healthcare system will collapse and those who are on the brink of starvation will actually starve to death.