In Yemen, War Is a Waste

November 3rd, 2019 - by Doug Weir / Conflict and Environment Observatory

How Yemen’s Conflict Destroyed its Waste Management System

The collapse of wastewater treatment poses a threat to lives and livelihoods in Yemen (Photo: EJAtlas)

The war is a textbook example of how conflicts disrupt environmental governance and sustainable development.

Doug Weir / Conflict and Environment Observatory

(August 1, 2019) — Given the scale of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, worrying about waste management might seem indulgent. But as with many environmental problems associated with conflicts, how waste is managed has implications for the protection of civilian health, their livelihoods and the environment. In this blog, Doug Weir looks at how the conflict has disrupted Yemen’s plans to improve waste management, what its affects have been on waste production and disposal, the implications for the protection of human and environmental health, and at potential solutions.

This is one of a series of blogs that CEOBS is publishing on the environmental consequences of the conflict in Yemen following the UK Court of Appeal ruling on UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The court found that such sales were unlawful as the civilian impact of UK exports had not been properly assessed.

Waste Management Is Not Sexy

Interviewed in 2016, Olmo Forni, a humanitarian waste specialist working for the UK NGO Disaster Waste Recovery (DWR) lamented that: “Waste management is not ‘sexy’ in humanitarian work. It’s easy to find funding for water interventions — you get your brand on a water pump and it’s a powerful image.” Although he acknowledged that more NGOs were becoming aware of the importance of waste management for protecting communities affected by conflict, attention and funding for it remained insufficient.

Waste management matters. Poor management creates acute and chronic human health threats and can result in immediate and long-term harm to the environment. When done well, these threats are minimised, and humanitarian waste projects can provide an economic stimulus during conflicts that can support some of the most marginalised in societies.

In 2015, DWR had published an emergency waste assessment for the conflict in Yemen. The report, which investigated the status of waste management across five governorates, laid bare the toll that the conflict was having. The capacity of local authorities to provide collection services had decreased as money wasn’t available for salaries, or for fuel or for the repair of vehicles — some of which had been damaged or stolen by conflict parties.

The formal recycling sector was largely moribund, thanks to export blockades, the high cost of fuel, power cuts and damage to infrastructure. What recycling capacity that existed was linked to the work of informal waste pickers. And the country’s only dedicated facility for treating hazardous healthcare waste in the capital Sana’a was inoperable due to a lack of electricity.

The consequences for health and the environment were obvious. Rubbish remained in the streets, risking the spread of disease. The few formal disposal sites were not functioning as they should, instead operating as unregulated dumps. These were plagued by fires, attended by waste pickers and in some cases buildings and infrastructure at the sites had been damaged by the fighting –Saudi airstrikes destroyed a waste processing building on Sana’a’s largest landfill site in 2015. As the system intended to ensure that waste made it to designated landfills had weakened, so the use of informal dumps in urban and rural areas had proliferated.

While some of the factors behind the slow collapse of Yemen’s waste management system, such as the damaged vehicles, loss of access due to security problems or bombed infrastructure, were directly attributable to the conflict, the majority of factors were indirect. They were knock-on effects of the social and administrative upheaval that Yemen had been plunged into since 2011. As the poorest country in the region, solid waste management was underdeveloped in Yemen prior to the Arab Spring. But plans were being put into place to address it.

Saudi Arabia’s attacks on Yemen may amount to war crimes.

Arrested Development

Yemen’s National Strategy for Solid Waste Management (SWM) was approved in 2009. The detailed five-year plan was comparatively realistic in the scale of its ambition. It sought to progress the country one stage further on an evolutionary SWM ranking, where stage zero equated to no services, and stage five viewed SWM as a question of “resource management rather than waste management”.

At the time it was prepared, Yemen was at stage one, with “partial coverage by unreliable collection services using inefficient collection vehicles, open dumping of wastes in wadis and informal sites, and uncontrolled waste picking.” The national strategy’s target? The “regular collection of wastes from all urban areas using appropriate vehicles, sweeping of main streets, disposal of wastes in controlled landfills, some controls on informal waste picking, relevant and effective legislation.”

Yemen’s stage one status translated into a SWM problem that had already been the focus of international donors and development organisations for a number of years. It was they that had funded technical assessments, capacity building and the provision of equipment. In spite of this, around 60% of the waste generated in Yemen went uncollected, and was “dumped, burned or buried, usually in illegal dumps or dry river beds.”

Efforts to decentralise responsibility to local authorities had met with limited success as the policy had not seen a concomitant increase in financial or technical resources, while waste services were primarily focused on the main urban areas to the exclusion of the poorer rural areas where the majority of the population lived. Hazardous and industrial wastes were not dealt with adequately, instead they were “mixed with ordinary waste, dumped in open dumps or into bodies of water or cultivated land.” The government had no data on the volumes involved, nor were management plans in place.

Nevertheless, Yemen’s five-year strategy had recognised these problems and was planning to address them. In 2010, the government had approved an Investment Plan for SWM which identified that the bill for the strategy would be US$270m. However, the political instability that consumed the country in the wake of the Arab Spring would see work on the strategy grind to a halt.

The struggle for clean water in Yemen (UNICEF)

The Health and Environmental Risks Posed by Waste in Yemen

Of Yemen’s 21 officially designated dumps — the total number varies depending on how they are classified — only six were operated with any degree of control in 2009. Unless properly designed and managed, such sites can generate water and air pollution and carry the threat of disease. Pollution from poorly managed waste sites is associated with high levels of allergies, asthma, skin irritations and gastrointestinal diseases in nearby communities. Poor management also increases fires and methane emissions, which contribute to global heating.

Leachate and Groundwater Pollution

Research on groundwater pollution from an unlined Yemeni landfill has been undertaken at a site north of the city of Ibb. A 2009 study found that leachate — a liquid discharge from landfills produced by rainwater that has mixed with the waste — was escaping from the site and could be found in boreholes drilled nearby. The samples contained levels of heavy metals that breached local guidelines for treated wastewater, together with coliform bacteria. Recent satellite images clearly show leachate discharge flowing downslope into cultivated agricultural terraces, and presumably being utilised by crops.

The risk that leachate from landfill sites poses to groundwater is dependent on a number of factors, including rainfall and the underlying geology. Outside Aden and Hodeidah, dumpsites are located on sediments that are both porous and permeable, potentially allowing the transmission of leachate into underlying groundwater resources: view the rapid growth of one dumpsite outside Aden between 2015-19.

Yemen’s 2009 SWM strategy prioritised tackling the discharge of highly contaminated leachate from dumpsites — unsurprising given the scarcity of water resources in the country. However, because of the high cost of installing leachate management systems, or closing dumps and replacing them with purpose-built lined sites that met sanitary criteria, this process would have been restricted to those sites closest to large cities.

Waste Fires, Air Pollution and Hazardous Waste

In addition to acting as a source of groundwater pollution, poorly managed landfill sites can damage local air quality through the uncontrolled release of trace gasses, accentuated during frequent spontaneous or intentional fires.

The majority of trace gas emissions from landfills are methane and carbon dioxide — greenhouse gasses that contribute to global heating and will continue to do so well after the landfill is abandoned. The remaining gas emissions are an esoteric mix which may include Hydrogen Sulphide, Toxic Organic Micropollutants (TOMP’s) and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s). Fine particulate matter is also released as contaminated dust and bioaerosols (bacteria, viruses), and ozone is generated downwind following atmospheric chemistry.

Methane is highly flammable and can result in spontaneous accidental fires, it can also sustain fires that are intentionally started in order to reduce waste volumes. Our analysis of VIIRS (Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite) satellite data between 2012-18 reveals that several sites used by Yemeni cities have seen repeated periods of burning. While VIIRS data may not capture all minor or spontaneous fires, it is sensitive enough to record more intensive events. Recurring fires are visible at dumpsites on the outskirts of Hodeidah, Aden and near al-Makala.

VIIRS satellite data cannot only provide a historical record of fires at dumpsites but is also a useful tool for locating them within countries. Images: Google Earth

Open burning is an issue that affects both operational and closed landfills. Communities living in close proximity to one site 15km to the west of Ta’izz have raised concerns over a rise in respiratory illnesses and kidney problems since 2013. The large site was opened in the 1980s and closed in 2000. Smoke from fires is clearly visible on images dating back to 2006. Although supposed to be closed, satellite imagery suggests that the landfill has been put back into use over the last 12 months.

Smoke from landfill fires likely contains nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, hydrogen chloride and volatile heavy metals such as mercury, VOC’s and TOMP’s. Airborne emissions represent a significant exposure risk for local populations not only through inhalation, but also via deposition onto soil and crops.

While those living, or reliant on agriculture near dumpsites such as these may be at particular risk from air or water pollution, there is another demographic for whom Yemen’s inadequate waste management policies are particularly problematic. Because waste in Yemen is rarely segregated, medical, hazardous and industrial wastes are routinely disposed of at the same sites as municipal waste.

In 2010, Yemen’s healthcare facilities were estimated to produce just under 4,000 tons of waste annually. No data is available for the volume of toxic industrial wastes. For the communities who scavenge dumpsites for food, or who make a living from recyclable materials found there the presence of these forms of waste creates serious health risks.

Debris from Damaged Buildings

As with medical and industrial waste, the disposal of construction and demolition wastes was also largely uncontrolled prior to 2011, and its illegal dumping on uncultivated land was commonplace. The problem was compounded by Yemen’s rapid population growth and, while municipalities were encouraged to issue licences for its removal and disposal at designated facilities, the system was ineffective.

The widespread use of explosive weapons in Yemen’s cities has created large volumes of debris from damaged buildings. And in addition to building materials, these wastes are typically contaminated with household products and chemicals, and may also contain unexploded ordnance and asbestos, complicating their management and disposal. Meanwhile particulate matter suspended from debris impacts local air quality.

UNOSAT analysis of Aden in 2015 revealed the damage wrought to buildings in populated areas by bombing and shelling. Counting the number of damaged buildings provides estimates of the volume of debris. Credit: REACH

International guidelines for the removal and management of building debris are well developed, and the processes required can provide short-term economic boosts for affected communities through the provision of temporary work. However, while a component of the debris may be recycled, in most cases large volumes need to be sent to landfill. If such interventions are poorly planned, particularly where landfill provision may be inadequate, this can lead to harmful consequences for the environment.

The duration and intensity of the conflict in Yemen means that the volumes of debris are significant. As early as October 2015, satellite analysis by UN agencies found that at least 3,000 structures had been destroyed. This was sufficient to have generated 1 million tons of debris in the cities of Aden, Hajah, Sa’ada, Taizz, Abyan and Sana’a. No figures are available for the current volume of debris.

In 2016 the UNOSAT analysis informed an emergency UNDP project in Aden, which sought to remove 55,000 tons of debris and 22,000 tons of solid waste. An assessment for the project estimated that 352,800 tons of debris had been generated from destroyed or damaged buildings. It is one of a number of waste and debris projects that the UNDP has undertaken in partnership with local and international NGOs and municipal authorities.

They typically involve a cash for work element to boost the income of vulnerable and marginalised groups. Other projects have included the provision of waste vehicles. Nevertheless, donor funding, access and security constraints, and the scale and ongoing nature of the problem, ensure that such efforts are insufficient to fully address the challenge.

These programmes also need to be designed with care to avoid re-marginalising those already marginalised. In Yemen, many of those employed in waste management services were from the Muhamasheen (“the marginalised”) or Al-Akhdam, a minority social group who, forced to the fringes of society, have been particularly hard hit by the conflict. Research by the Sana’a Center found that where UN agencies and other donors have helped fund local waste projects, in some cases the Muhamasheen have not benefited from the jobs created, which have instead been taken by internally displaced people (IDPs) and others in need.

How the Conflict Has Influenced Waste Generation

The landfills and informal dumpsites are just one end of a waste chain that begins at factories, hospitals, homes and in the streets. The effect of the conflict on the generation of waste, and its corresponding problems for human and environmental health, is not uniform across the country. Internal displacement and population movements, as well as economic restrictions, have led to changes in patterns of consumption and waste generation.

At the time of writing 2.34 million Yemenis have been internally displaced as a result of the conflict. As the humanitarian community has promoted a “no camp policy” in Yemen, 74% of those displaced are living with host families or in rented accommodation. And, as the conflict has fragmented and the violence has ebbed and flowed, many families have moved on repeated occasions. Together with the decline in the capacity of local authorities to provide waste management services, these changes in population density and economic factors make it difficult to track the status of waste generation and provision, and to develop appropriate policies.

Nevertheless, a recent WASH Cluster assessment (NGOs working on water, sanitation and hygiene in Yemen) found that between 2014 and 2018, the systematic collection of waste decreased in both urban areas and rural areas. Some 89% of those they had surveyed reported that their domestic rubbish was not collected, a figure that correlated with increased rates of open burning and dumping. Across the areas assessed, a third of respondents reported that they disposed of their waste through burning or dumping, while more than half said that they left their waste in public spaces in the expectation that it would be collected.

To Act National — Think Local

That Yemen faced problems managing solid waste prior to the conflict was not unusual. As a low-income country, its situation was hardly unique. However, its government had recognised the problem and, with the help of international development agencies, it had devised and costed a clear road map to begin to address the problems that it faced.

The collapse of the country into cycles of conflict from 2011 onwards brought that work to a halt. The donors and development agencies fled and the scale of the humanitarian crisis that enveloped Yemen demanded that funding be focused on food, clean water and on sheltering those displaced by the fighting.

The precise impact that the deterioration of waste management has had on public health in Yemen is impossible to determine. So too its consequences for the environment. Nevertheless, environmental conditions around both formal and informal dumpsites will have worsened in the absence of appropriate controls, while the build-up and burning of wastes in both urban and rural areas will have contributed to the spread of diseases and air, water and soil pollution.

Humanitarian projects in Yemen continue to be badly affected by the poor security situation and a lack of access, despite the UNDP’s high-profile waste management projects such as the provision of vehicles. Furthermore, payments to civil servants have been frozen due to the segregation of the country, and in particular the economic dispute between the Houthi administration and the Yemeni government. This has left local administrations unable to pay waste collectors. WASH Cluster research has found this to be a key factor in the decline of waste services and the consequent impacts on health and the environment.

Yemen’s waste crisis is a compelling example of how armed conflicts not only cause direct damage to the environment but how they can also lead to widespread environmental harm through disrupting environmental governance. When national governance is disrupted — as has been the case with Yemen’s solid waste strategy — solutions must shift to the local level: to the municipalities, civil society and to communities.

This is a view shared by DWR’s Martin Bjerregaard, who told CEOBS: “For me, when working in crisis waste management, small really is best. Working at the neighbourhood level with the engagement of residents and shop owners is where it all starts — parents understand the risk waste poses to their children in the streets. Weaving these smaller projects into an overall regional crisis waste management plan is a challenge but our successful experiences in Syria making fuel briquettes out of waste, or recycling debris at a neighbourhood level, show that it is possible.

“There are also new technologies we should be looking at, such as smaller, mobile waste-to-energy incinerators that can burn the waste and produce electricity. Even though a high capital cost, these technologies can lead to longer term improvements in waste management, as well as multiple spin-off benefits such as power and lower transport costs.”

Routing technical and financial assistance to the local level is complex in these contexts — particularly when, as is the case in Yemen, two thirds of WASH funding needs remain unmet. But with no end in sight for the conflict, local projects and new approaches may be the only way to help mitigate the health and environmental risks communities in Yemen face because of its waste crisis.

Doug Weir is CEOBS’ Research and Policy Director. Thank you to Martin Bjerregaard of DWR for reviewing this blog.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.