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Un Magazine 14.1

The Cartography of Climate Apartheid in Yemen

Edna Bonhomme

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3/20

Article

In Octavia Butler’s science-fiction novel Parable of the Sower a character remarks: ‘There has to be more that we can do, a better destiny that we can shape. Another place. Another way. Something!’1 This plea is rooted in a near-future dystopian Los Angeles, an irritating and disfigured city that has been destroyed by climate change and growing inequalities. The natural (yet not-so-natural) disaster depicted in Butler’s text portrays a society where people are forced to migrate, driven to gather to outer space, because their home have been compromised by the anthropogenic failings of society. Some of the events in Parable of the Sower mirror what is happening in Yemen today — one of the many countries in the Middle East that has been made to bear the brunt of the atmospheric crisis — producing what David Wallace-Wells describes as an uninhabitable earth.2 An outsider’s encounter with the climate crisis in Yemen and countries like it is often presented through provocative data, enumerating the tragic and disabling aspects of an ecological doomsday. But when we train ourselves to gaze at the data alone, we lose the human face of the crisis.

At stake in the climate crisis is recognising humanity for those who are living in a sweltering and unpredictable dystopia, to start to do something for the flora and fauna cascaded by unbearable heatwaves. The uninhabitable earth is not a distant dream that is projected by data. Rather, it is a subject that can begin to be addressed through a praxis of care.

The climate crisis has led to a global movement across various sectors of society. Publications such as The Guardian now prioritise climate crisis coverage and organisations such as the World Economic Forum have argued that [big data will be the way to solve the crisis problem.3 One motivation for this increased coverage and insistence on statistics is to combat skeptics, many of who are shielded from the most destructive aspects of the climate crisis. In some arenas, data skepticism has mattered, yet when it comes to the environment, it can cost lives. For people living in the Middle East and North Africa, the climate crisis has spoiled the delicate vault of food and water, amplifying food insecurity and economic stress, with the region experiencing a 75 per cent water reduction since the 1950s. In Yemen, total food self-sufficiency has gone from 51.5 per cent in 2005 to 31.2 per cent in 2011.4 Food insecurity can partially be explained by the environmental crisis.

Climate projections are even more damning. Countries in the Middle East and North Africa have been particularly impacted by climate change, with scientists predicting rainfall decline by 20–40 per cent and temperature increases between 2–4°C in the region. These figures map out the crisis, yet they do not show the lived experience of marginalised people, their hopes and desires and, more importantly, their forms of resistance. Data fetishisation conceals these human connections.

There are a number of ways these human actions are obscured and made invisible, and these intersect with an emerging global problem: climate apartheid. Climate apartheid is the unequal distribution of environmental hardship, coupled with temperature increase, less rainfall and biodiversity loss.[^4] A 2014 report from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development called Turning Down the Heat: Confronting the New Climate Normal argued that countries in the Middle East and North Africa would be [‘vulnerable to effects beyond [their] ... borders.’5 This report pointed to a global problem that results in local catastrophe — something that climate skeptics are failing to acknowledge. As the BBC reported, countries in the Global South are likely to suffer 75 per cent of the consequences of climate change despite only contributing to 10 per cent of carbon emissions. This figure is harrowing.

As Colin Koopman wrote in How We Became Our Data, information systems have constructed, constrained or comforted who we are; they produce the ontology of what it means to be human.6 Our flirtation with data also invites us to engage with what Sylvia Wynter notes as the ‘praxis of the human’. The data and disparate records show that the current environmental and political situation makes it difficult to live. Big data casts a shadow on migration. On a global scale, the climate crisis has contributed to migration, with the International Organization for Migration estimating that up to 140 million people from Africa, Asia and Latin America will migrate because of the climate crisis by 2050.7 In Yemen, more than two million people, out of twenty million, are displaced. In January 2020, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that nearly six thousand persons internally displaced because of the conflict in Yemen were assigned weather-adjusted shelter kits. They also reported increasing water sanitation and providing solar panels for the water heating system. These measures are commendable but they do not address a fraction of the people most impacted by the competing crises.

In an age where big data fortifies truth, the geological assemblage of ecological disturbance can be hard to unpack. Advocates of the Anthropocene argue that human-driven extractive policies have destroyed natural systems, overwhelming ancestral forests and seaside villages. The verdict: the planet is damaged. We are haunted by the graves of ecological nothingness, mushroom clouds and near extinct lichens, all the while we are caught in an environmental exigency. In an experimental volume on the climate crisis, Anna Tsing and her colleagues have remarked that the Anthropocene produces ghosts by leaving traces, ‘vestiges and signs of past ways of life.’8 How do we understand the climate crisis not just in terms of the data and maps that show the trend but, rather, as a phenomenon that also plays a role in everyday people’s lives?

The lived experience of Yemenis who bear the brunt of the climate crisis has been well documented by international and governmental organisations, who have characterised the oscillating discourses of desperation and despair. Water is one vehicle for how the climate crisis plays out. In 2016, war had worsened the already fragile water supply in Yemen’s capital city. Saudi Arabian jets destroyed a reservoir in Sana’a, a reservoir which had supplied water to 30,000 people. Climate change in Yemen is not just a matter of a shifting ecology, the loss of biodiversity or increased desertification — it is exacerbated by geopolitical crises. One question worth asking is: what does it mean when people no longer have access to water and how do we exercise concern over the people who have been abandoned through proxy wars? The front line of the climate crisis opens up a set of questions about the spaces that merit empathy.

Hajjah Zuhra, a member of the Haraz tribe west of Sana’a, Yemen, recalled in 2014: ‘In our area, which is not served by piped water, we spend up to five hours a day fetching water. Our crops dry up, while we desperately wait for rain.’ The crops are one of the many dimensions of what is being lost. The Haraz tribe originate from the Haraz mountains, a living legacy of the eleventh century Sulayhid dynasty, which constructed a basalt agricultural bastion, a heritage site on the Arabian Peninsula. The climate crisis is not just an incursion on subsistence, it eats away at the memorials that have animated life. The fortitude of the Haraz tribe to endure drought is remarkable, but there are millions of Yemenis waiting for rain to nourish their harvest, and to provide some stability to their livelihoods.

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The climate crisis has also contributed to unprecedented hardship caused by exploitative extraction of natural resources. As Emily Atkin reported in The New Republic in November 2018: ‘Climate change compounds suffering during conflicts. In Yemen, people have been warning about its effects for almost a decade, well before the civil war began.’ Yemen’s proximity to petrol drilling and the humanitarian crisis has had a deleterious effect on the country. At the core of global climatic shifts is the country’s proximity to the Gulf states that have relied on petrol extraction for their financial gain. The negative impacts of this ecological footprints not only further accelerates global warming, especially in the Middle East, but also produces further inequalities, which enhance climate apartheid.

While the climate crisis has contributed to health inequalities, internal displacement and the destruction of heritage sites, Yemenis have resisted and have exercised their political autonomy. In August 2019, Southern Yemen separatists gathered in Aden, occupied several government buildings and seized control of the port city. Days later, Saudi Aramco, an oil company, was bombed by Houthi rebels. Actions in various Yemeni port cities meant that trade and fuel shipments in principal port cities such as Aden and Hudayah were compromised. This is where data, maps and figures fail to capture the human. Ordinary people have the capacity to exercise their own agency — even when statistics suggest otherwise. It is in their capacity to collectively envisage and rectify a better world; they can come to overturn the structures that have come to cause them harm.

Moving beyond the hyper-reliance on data forces us to think about what would make environmental restitution possible, and predicated on recovery, sustainability and care. Imagination might be the interstitial character that helps absolve us of the climate catastrophe, the disfigured city, the unformed crop formations and more. It might entail troubling the production of the weapons industry and dismantling the global borders that siphon the climate crisis elsewhere, all of which anonymise affliction. Re-orienting ourselves towards the politics of the human may widen our possibilities for dismantling the dystopia and situating ourselves in a plane where habitats that have been most damaged are transformed into a liveable planet.

Edna Bonhomme is a Haitian American scholar, writer, former biologist and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for History of Science.


  1. Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower, New York: Publisher’s Weekly, 1993. 

  2. David Wallace-Wells, *The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming,( New York: Penguin Books, 2019. 

  3. Guardian Staff,‘Capitalism, the climate crisis and hope: your priorities for 2020’, The Guardian, 13 January 2020; Liza Ramrayka, ‘How big data can help us fight climate change faster’, World Economic Forum, 19 October 2018. 

  4. Abdul-Karim Sadik, Mahmoud El-Solh and Najib Saab, Arab Environment 4: Food Security Challenges and Prospects, Arab Forum for Environment and Development, 2014. 

  5. International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Turn Down the Heat: Confronting the New Climate Normal, The World Bank Group, 2014. 

  6. Colin Koopman, (How We Became Our Data: A Genealogy of the Informational Person,* Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2019 

  7. Kanta Kumari Rigaud, Alex de Sherbinin, Bryan Jones, Jonas Bergmann, Viviane Clement, Kayly Ober, et al., ‘Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration’, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, 2018. 

  8. Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan and Nils Bubant, Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.