The article was published at that blog: https://internationalaffairsanalysis.blogspot.com/2019/09/the-yemen-epidemic-when-geography-and.html
Yemen, from time to time, gains a place in international news. The war raging for years in the Asian country has caused an international outcry. However, another fact that is not mentioned is that since the fall of 2016, the Yemeni people have been suffering from an outbreak of infectious diseases and especially cholera. This situation is sounding the alarm in the scientific community, and it tends to turn into a humanitarian crisis. This article examines how geography and war together have a share of responsibility for this situation.
The “curse” of geography: a country not favored
Yemen is located in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula. It borders east to Oman, north to Saudi Arabia, west by sea to Djibouti and Eritrea. It is flowed by the Indian Ocean to the east and south and by the Red Sea to the west.
To the west, to the south and to the southeast that is to the seaside, lies the heart of the country’s economic life. These areas are home to the largest urban centers, with large ports that allow trade, while fishing is also highly developed. Agriculture is also developed as fertile ground is found in those areas.
But the country is a little favored by geography. Most of the interior is desert. In particular, this Arab state has mainly a mountainous terrain with many mountains as one goes inland, extending from west to east and occupying a large area. In the north, an area of land is formed, called the ‘Empty Square’. It is one of the largest desert areas in the world, a continuation of the vast desert of Saudi Arabia, named Rub al-Khali. It is characteristic that Yemen has no rivers and only when it rains there are streams that become dry when the weather warms. In this rough soil, there are some areas that offer opportunities for cultivation, but not enough production. Still, there are issues of water supply and drinking water, which aggravate the position of the Yemenis.
The fate of the country will be analogous to its geography. The Arab state is a hot one, plagued by frequent sandstorms and the process of desertification. The climatic phenomena do not allow the development of agriculture and reduce it, as the fertile soil is constantly decreasing. Consequently, food crises are fatal, while the situation is getting better due to the major ports in the Indian Ocean favoring the imports of food and essentials. Nevertheless, Yemen is known for its problems in the field of nutrition and health.
The factor of the war
The year 2011 is an important year for the Arab world. Then, a series of uprisings broke out in many Arab countries against the long-standing authoritarian regimes that led to their downfall in some of them and caused to others a civil war with regional and international implications. Yemen was supposed to belong to the latter category.
In January of this year, protests erupted against President Ali Abdallah Saleh with demands similar to other demonstrations. The government exercised violence and repression, and local conflicts erupted. At the same time, armed Islamists seized parts of the region to act as bases for their action. The country was on the brink of anarchy and collapse.
The peculiar civil war raging in Sana’a resulted in the assassination attempt on Saleh. It failed, but the Yemeni president fled to Riyadh injured and left Vice President Al-Hadi in his place. Meanwhile, the opposition formed its own political coalition leading to a total government-opposition rupture. Finally, the government withstood the pressure and in the winter of 2012 a truce was signed. In the short term, peace returned to the country.
In autumn 2014, political developments in Yemen would take another turn. The Houthis with their homonymous religious movement, from their bases in the northeast, a not so fertile part of the state, began to spread. They backed the outgoing President Saleh, opposed President Al-Hadi, who was in the meantime backed by the Saudi leadership and received support from Iran who found the opportunity to undermine its rival, Saudi Arabia, in its “soft underbelly”.
The momentum of the Houthis worried the government and its foreign allies. The descent of them led to a new cycle of civil strife, which this time would prove disastrous for the country and its people. The first success of the Houthis was the capture of the capital. In other areas, the Houthis occupied government bases and parts of the territory. In January 2015, the Hadi government resigned and the split was complete.
In March 2015, a new civil war broke out between the Houthis and the faithful forces in the old government. The focus was on Aden’s vital port, where the Houthis were defeated. In return, they occupied the third largest city in the Arab state, Tait, after a general attack. In the West, but also in the kingdoms of the Arabian Peninsula, the strengthening of the Houthis and, by extension, Iran caused fear. The forces faithful to Hadi had to endure. External involvement would not be late.
The intervention of third countries was expressed by the creation of an arabian coalition led by Saudi Arabia. Immediately, an air bombardment campaign swept Yemen with Houthis bases, water tanks, crop farms, food depots, civilian homes and other government buildings to become targets. At the same time, Al-Qaeda managed to conquer parts of the country after a victorious march. In the fall, the Houthis abandoned their efforts to capture Aden. Now, life for the Yemeni people would become unbearable.
In late 2015 and while the civil war raged along with outside intervention, Riyadh imposed a naval blockade on Yemen. This move was made in the context of a total war, since the Houthis, despite their efforts, could not be exterminated. Food, first aid and other goods could not be imported into the country either by land, by air or by sea. In the fall of 2016, the United States decided to join the embargo in an effort to pressure the Houthis to leave power, while eliminating Iranian influence.
External intervention was not the only cause of famine. Unable to obtain the goods necessary to continue their struggle, the Houthis launched a campaign of seizure of those by ordinary citizens. Drugs, food, precious objects and drinking water became a target for Houthis’s men. It was an unpleasant situation that was supposed to prove disastrous for the society.
In December 2016, the first outbreaks of cholera occurred in the country. The number of people infected has been rising since spring and especially in summer 2017 when there was talk of a pandemic. In 2017, about 910,000 people became infected with cholera, with deaths exceeding 2,500 individuals.
Not only had the situation in 2018 not improved, but it worsened. Overall, it is estimated that more than 1,200,000 people were infected with the germ of the disease, with deaths rising to more than 2,500, with 58% of those infected and dying being children.
For 2019, there is no sound evidence yet, but it can be assumed that things are not going to be better as the conflict continues. Another worrying thing is that cholera in the country is spreading very fast. It is the fastest expansion of the germ since 1949 when it is monitored by the WHO.
What eventually caused cholera? An overall account
It is clear from the above that the rapid rise and spread of the infectious disease in Yemen is due to two key factors, geography and war. Geography has made Yemen a barren country, with little room for growth in production and climatic phenomena that facilitate a food crisis and the emergence and spread of diseases. Lack of water also causes water scarcity, while inadequate sanitation policy leads to inadequate water purification, a disastrous situation for the public health. The war, in turn, has led to the destruction of food storages, the decline in agricultural production, the destruction of critical public health infrastructures (water distribution and purification plants, hospitals etc), the contamination of goods for consumption, the absence of imports of essentials and looting of the minimum goods available. Therefore, the outbreak of infectious diseases and cholera was a natural continuation of the two factors mentioned above.
What does the future hold? It seems that the future will bring misery. The conflict does not seem to end. The interests are many and the stakes go beyond the internal political balances of the Arab state. In this context, cholera will continue to spread, infecting people and causing death. Coordinated energy and willing are needed at local, regional and international level to address the current humanitarian crisis. However, there seems to be no such willing, at least for the time being.