From dumping toxic waste into the sea to littering Yemen’s farms with tons of unexploded cluster bombs, Saudi Arabia is creating a legacy so toxic in Yemen that experts believe it could take a century to undo.
AL-JAWF, YEMEN — As the world’s focus turns to the rapidly-spreading COVID-19 pandemic, Yemenis are reeling from their own brewing tragedy, contending with the thousands of cluster bombs, landmines and other exploded munitions that now litter their homeland. Just yesterday, a young child was killed and another was injured in the al-Ghail district of al-Jawf when a landmine left by the Saudi military exploded, witnesses told MintPress. Outraged and terrified by the presence of these unexploded ordnances, Ahmed Sharif, a father of 9 who owns a farm in the district called the unexploded ordnances “a significant threat to our children.”
Earlier this week, thousands of cluster bombs containing between dozens and hundreds of smaller submunitions were dropped by air and scattered indiscriminately over large areas near Ahmed’s farm. A large number of those munitions failed to explode on impact, creating a new threat to residents already reeling from 5 years of war, famine and an economic blockade. The use, production, sale, and transfer of cluster munitions is prohibited under the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, an international agreement recognized by over 100 countries, but rejected by Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Saudi Arabia is estimated to have dropped thousands of tons of U.S.-made weapons in al-Jawf over the past 100 days alone. Al-Jawf is an oil-rich province that lies in Yemen’s north-central reaches along the Saudi border. The aerial campaign is likely a last-ditch effort to stem the tide of battlefield success by local volunteer fighters who teamed with Houthi forces to recapture large swaths of al-Jawf and Marib provinces. That campaign, for all intents and purposes, has failed.
On Wednesday, the Houthis announced that their military operation – dubbed “God Overpowered Them” – was complete and that al-Jawf was free of Saudi occupation. According to Houthi sources, more than 1,200 Saudi-led coalition fighters were killed or injured during the operation and dozens of Saudi troops, including officers, were captured. The Houthis also struck deep into Saudi territory in retaliation for the more than 250 Saudi airstrikes that were carried out during the campaign. In multiple operations, ballistic missiles and drones were used to target facilities inside Saudi Arabia, according to officials.
Saudi losses haven’t been limited to al-Jawf either. Last week, Marib province, which lies adjacent to Yemen’s capital of Sana’a, was recaptured following heavy battles with Saudi forces. Local tribal fighters were able to clear strategic areas in the Sirwah District with the assistance of Houthi forces and take control of the town of Tabab Al-Bara and the strategic Tala Hamra hills that overlook Marib city. Both the Saudi-led coalition and its allied militants initially admitted defeat but later described their loss as a tactic withdrawal.
Marib is now the second Yemeni governorate adjacent to Saudi Arabia to fall under the control by Yemen’s resistance forces in the last month, al-Jawf being the first. Both provinces have strategic importance to Saudi Arabia and could serve as a potential launch point for operations into Saudi Arabia’s Najran province.
“Saudi [Arabia] and America have planted our land with death”
The highly populated urban areas of Sana’a, Sadaa, Hodeida, Hajjah, Marib, and al-Jawf have been subjected to incomprehensible bombing campaigns during the Saudi-led war on Yemen, which turns five on March 26. The sheer scale of that campaign, which often sees hundreds of separate airstrikes carried out every day, coupled with its indiscriminate nature, has left Yemen one of the most heavily contaminated countries in the world.
Since 2015, when the war began, coalition warplanes have conducted more than 250,000 airstrikes in Yemen, according to the Yemeni Army. 70 percent of those airstrikes have hit civilian targets. Thousands of tons of weapons, most often supplied by the United States, have been dropped on hospitals, schools, markets, mosques, farms, factories, bridges, and power and water treatment plants and have left unexploded ordnances scattered across densely populated areas.
A significant proportion of those ordnances are still embedded in the ground or amid the rubble of bombed-out buildings, posing a threat to both civilians and the environment. As Man’e Abu Rasein, a father who lost two sons to an unexploded cluster bomb in August of 2018 puts it: “Saudi [Arabia] and America have planted our land with death.” Abu Rasein’s sons, Rashid, ten, and Hussein, eight, were grazing their family’s herd of sheep in the village of al-Ghol north of Sadaa, far from any battlefield. They spotted an unusual looking object and like most curious young boys, picked it up to investigate. But the object they found was no toy, it was an unexploded cluster munition dropped by a Saudi jet. After hearing an explosion, the boys’ family went to investigate and found them lying dead, covered in blood.
Since March of 2015, Human Rights Watch has recorded more than 15 incidents involving six different types of cluster munitions in at least five of Yemen’s 21 governorates. According to the United Nations Development Program’s Emergency Mine Action Project, some of the heaviest mine and ERW (explosive remnants of war) contamination is reported in northern governorates bordering Saudi Arabia, southern coastal governorates and west-central governorates, all areas surrounding Houthi-dominated regions of Yemen. Since 2018 alone, the UNDP has cleared nearly 9,000 landmines and over 116,000 explosive remnants in Yemen.
From the Yemeni war of 1994 to the six wars in Sadaa, Yemenis have suffered several wars over the last three decades. Yet thanks to saturation of U.S. weapons, the ongoing war has brought death on a toll not seen in Yemen for hundreds of years. In Sadaa, the Saudi coalition has a significant legacy of unexploded ordinances, up to one million according to figures provided to MintPress by the Yemeni Executive Mine Action Center (YEMAC), an organization backed by the United Nations.
The Project Manager of YEMAC identified heavy cluster munition contamination in Saada, al-Jawf, Amran, Hodeida, Mawit, and Sanaa governorates, including in Sanaa city. Contamination was also reported in Marib. For the time being, YEMAC is the only organization working throughout the country during the ongoing war. Their teams are confronted with a very complex situation, disposing of both conventional munitions and bombs dropped from airplanes, including explosive remnants of war rockets, artillery shells, mortars, bombs, hand grenades, landmines, cluster bombs, and other sub-munitions and similar explosives.
Saudi Arabia’s toxic legacy
In addition to killing and injuring hundreds of civilians, American-made weapons have exposed Yemen’s people to highly toxic substances on a level not seen since the now-infamous use of radioactive depleted uranium by the United States in Fallujah, Iraq, which to this day is causing abnormally high rates of cancer and birth defects.
The hazardous chemicals from Saudi Coalition military waste, including radioactive materials, fuel hydrocarbons, and heavy metals, has already led to outbreaks of disease. Vehicles abandoned on battlefields, usually in various states of destruction, contain toxic substances including PCBs, CFCs, DU residue, heavy metals, unexploded ordnances, asbestos and mineral oils. Hundreds of these military scraps remain publicly accessible in Nihm, al-Jawf, Serwah, Marib and throughout Yemen.
Aside from the threat they pose to life and limb, unexploded ordnances contain toxic substances like RDX, TNT, and heavy metals which release significant levels of toxic substances into the air, soil and water. According to both the Ministry of Water and Environment and the Ministry of Health, which have undertaken environmental assessments on the impact of urban bombing, high levels of hazardous waste and air pollutants are already present in a populated areas
Alongside the still unknown quantities of more conventional weapons remnants in Yemen, the waste from the cleanup of bombed-out buildings has been found to be especially contaminated with hazardous materials, including asbestos which is used in military applications for sound insulation, fireproofing and wiring among other things. Fires and heavy smoke billowing over heavily populated civilian areas following Saudi bombing runs also pose an imminent threat to human health. A common sight in many Yemeni cities since the war began, these thick clouds of toxic smoke sometimes linger for days and coat both surfaces and people’s lungs with hazardous toxins like PAHs, dioxins and furans, materials which have been shown to cause cancer, liver problems and birth defects.
Before the war began, most hazardous materials were trucked to Sanaa where they were separated and disposed of properly at the sprawling al-Azragein treatment plant south of the capital. But that plant was among the first targets destroyed by Saudi airstrikes after the war began. After it was bombed, puddles and heaps of toxic material were left to mix with rainwater and seep into surrounding areas. Yemeni researchers are still trying to grasp the scale of pollution from biohazardous chemicals at the site.
Although a comprehensive nationwide environmental assessment of the impact of urban bombing in Yemen has yet to be completed, high levels of hazardous waste and air pollutants have been recorded by many hospitals and environmental agencies. Some idea of the long-term effects can also be gleaned from studies carried out in areas where similar toxins have been used, particularly by the United States in Fallujah, Iraq and in Vietnam, where scientific assessments have shown increased cases of birth defects, cancer and other diseases, including in U.S. veterans.
In southern Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates operate largely unchallenged, the coalition has been disposing of military waste in large trenches devoid of any measures to mitigate potential toxic fallout. Waste is dumped into large holes and either detonated or simply buried, inevitably contaminating soil and groundwater according to data from the UN Environment Program.
Yemen’s coastline hasn’t been immune either. The country’s General Authority for Environmental Protection said Wednesday that the Saudi-led coalition is dumping toxic and polluted waste on the shores of Yemen and in Yemeni regional waters, causing great damage to the marine environment, the deaths of fish and marine organisms, and in some cases, actually changing the color of the sea to a toxic green. The agency stated that in addition to dumping toxic waste, the coalition was allowing unsafe fishing practices such as marine dredging and the use of explosives by foreign ships, destroying the marine environment and coral reefs.
One hundred years to safety
Thousands of displaced Yemenis cannot fathom returning home due to the large number of explosives potentially hidden in and around their houses. Removing them all would require an end to the U.S.-backed war and economic blockade. Special equipment and armored machines such as armored excavators would need to be brought in, a slim prospect in a country unable to secure even the basic stapes of life.
Explosive remnants do not just impact lives and limbs, they prevent the use of potentially productive agricultural land and the rebuilding of important infrastructure. Like many border areas in Saada and Hajjah, fertile soil in al-Jawf and Marib has become so environmentally polluted since the war began that it could take decades to recover. Explosive remnants also prevent access to vital resources like water and firewood, cripples the movement of residents, including children traveling to school, and prevents aid from reaching those in need.
Even if the Saudi-led coalition were to stop the war immediately and lift the blockade, its legacy of indiscriminate bombing on such a massive scale will be felt for years to come. Due to the intensity of the bombing, experts at the United Nations Development Program’s Yemeni Executive Mine Action Center estimate that clearance could take at least 100 years in larger cities. Despite these dangers, desperate families with nowhere to go do not waste a lull in the barrage of Saudi airstrikes or a short-lived ceasefire to attempt to return home.
Feature photo | A collection of unexploded ordnance recovered by the UNDP’s YEMAC project in Yemen. Courtesy | YEMAC
Ahmed AbdulKareem is a Yemeni journalist. He covers the war in Yemen for MintPress News as well as local Yemeni media.