Environmental pathways for peace and reconciliation in Yemen?
By Amy Dallas and Julie Raasteen
This blog is posted ahead of the Stockholm Forum 2022 where the European Institute of Peace is organising the virtual event ‘Environmental pathways for reconciliation in Yemen’ on Wednesday 25 May at 10.30-11.30 CEST. You can register for the Stockholm Forum and the event here. The original SIPRI blog post can be viewed here.
The conflict in Yemen is approaching its eighth year and continues to evolve. It has fragmented the country’s social fabric, caused unthinkable humanitarian suffering, and brought about an intractable political crisis. Successful peacemaking efforts in Yemen will require an inclusive and sustainable settlement. Environmental challenges, including increasing impacts of climate change, directly affect livelihoods and interact with conflict dynamics. Therefore, addressing environmental issues, including climate change, must be part of efforts to achieve peace.
This raises the questions of how we make room for environmental considerations when negotiating peace in such a complex and urgent context, and how this can be done in a way that listens to and acts on the voices of Yemenis. This blog post explores these questions, taking stock of a range of environmental peacebuilding efforts and areas of expertise. It delves into how we can use grassroots, sustainable and above all Yemeni-led action to help mitigate what has manifested itself as a major human security crisis: the catastrophic consequences of rapid environmental degradation and climatic change in a country plagued by violent conflict.
Environmental challenges in the midst of violent conflict
Yemen has been in violent conflict since 2015, and in 2021 it ranked as the world’s most fragile state according to the Fragile States Index. Even before the conflict, Yemen was environmentally fragile. The country is extremely vulnerable to climate change impacts and has suffered from high levels of chronic poverty and food insecurity due to a high dependency on food imports. In the years since the conflict began, destruction and pollution have further prevented Yemenis from taking care of their environment.
While the conflict continues, Yemen’s natural environment is collapsing under the combined pressure of climate stress, the impacts of conflict and natural resource mismanagement; a fact that is increasingly confirmed by data and studies. The country has seen heavy rains and storms, a water crisis, degradation of agricultural and pasture lands, loss of tree cover, damage to the marine environment, as well as air, oil and other chemical pollution. According to the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative (ND‑GAIN) Index, of the 20 countries most vulnerable to climate change, 12 were marred by ongoing conflicts. Yemen ranks number 172 out of 182 for climate vulnerability. For Yemen, the conflict has meant that the country has neither capacity nor financial resources to dedicate to address the damage done to its environment and thereby the suffering of its inhabitants. As ND‑GAIN concludes, there is a ‘great need for investment and innovations to improve readiness and a great urgency for action’.
Between October 2020 and October 2021, the European Institute of Peace conducted large-scale consultations among nearly 16 000 Yemenis in nine governorates, constituting the largest effort in recent history, despite the ongoing conflict, to survey members of Yemeni society about their needs, perspectives and rights in the search for lasting peace. The consultation period coincided with particularly severe torrential rain and flooding, which undoubtedly contributed to one striking finding: the majority of respondents ranked environmental concerns (such as living conditions and natural resources) as an urgent priority. Some even ranked it above ‘ending the war’.
This underlines the strong need to deal with environmental issues, including those caused by climate change, in the context of peace efforts, and not as an ‘afterthought’ or side issue. At the same time, a deeper, more concrete understanding is required of how these issues impact local communities and of what communities can do to address them.
Environmental pathways for peace and reconciliation
The challenges presented by environmental degradation and the changing climate need to be addressed in the context of the search for peace, not least because they may serve as entry points and platforms for collaboration, reconciliation, and peacebuilding. Addressing climate hazards, food insecurity and poor access to clean water is first and foremost a question of immediate human security. But it is also a question of thinking about the future.
Peace agreements are difficult to conclude, and harder still to keep and build sustainably. Lasting peace depends on processes to resolve conflict that meaningfully engage with all levels of society, and it ultimately requires a critical mass of society to accept the settlement. To do so, people must believe that the settlement offers something better than what has gone before and that it is in their interests to stick with it and withhold their support from potential spoilers. The more the peace settlement seriously considers the views of wider society, the greater the odds that such legitimacy will be conferred, and support obtained.
Climate change and the low-carbon transition are topics that will shape the future. To answer how the low-carbon transition should shape the future, a wide cross-section of the population must be included and efforts to make peace, whether at local or national level, must take it into account.
Some Yemenis are already at the forefront of answering these questions. Examples include spearheading clean energy cooking methods, negotiating local access for food and water, and developing plans for climate action on a national level. But more needs to be done, especially to connect the local and the national.
There are important entry points for Yemen associated with international climate negotiations, climate finance and all the institutions necessary to facilitate a transition from conflict to a sustainable, green society. These must be well understood and well leveraged by both Yemeni and international actors.
On 25 May, the European Institute of Peace will hold an online panel discussion at the Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development entitled ‘Environmental pathways for reconciliation in Yemen’. We have invited a number of Yemeni peacebuilders and activists to present their work through the lens of environmental concerns and discuss the important role that environmental action can play in bringing peace to Yemen. Please join us.
The European Institute of Peace virtual event ‘Environmental pathways for reconciliation in Yemen’ takes place on Wednesday 25 May at 10:30 CEST.
About the authors
Amy Dallas is Environmental Peacemaking Programme Assistant at the European Institute of Peace. Her background is in humanitarian assistance, having previously worked with Oxfam and the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Office (DG ECHO).
Julie Raasteen is Environmental Peacemaking Programme Officer at the European Institute of Peace. She holds a master from the University of Southern Denmark and was formerly project and Secretariat coordinator at the Council for International Conflict Resolution (Copenhagen).