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When the end of World War I signaled the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, North Yemen became independent. South Yemen, a British protectorate since the 19th century, did not achieve independence until 1967. When South Yemen adopted Marxism in 1970, hundreds of Yemenis fled to the north, setting the stage for dissension that ended only with the unification of the two countries as the Republic of Yemen in 1990. A border dispute with Saudi Arabia was peacefully settled in 2000. However, internal strife in Yemen continued, due in large part to a stagnant economy, ultimately leading to a crisis of debt payments. Following loan rescheduling by the International Monetary Fund, by the end of 2002 Yemen’s external debt was 47.9 percent of its GDP, down from 52 percent the previous year.
Yemen is the 14th-poorest nation in the world, with a per capita income of only $800. Over 45 percent of Yemenis live below the national poverty line. More than a third of the labor force is unemployed, and the majority of workers are engaged in subsistence agriculture and herding. Barely a fourth of Yemenis live in urban areas.
A number of social indicators mirror Yemen’s status as one of the world’s poorest nations, preventing the government from focusing attention on environmental issues. Life expectancy is only 61.5 years for the population of 20,727,063. The combination of an infant mortality rate of 61.5 deaths per 1,000 live births, a fertility rate of 6.67 children per female, an HIV/AIDS rate of 0.1 percent, and exposure to diseases that are common among poor nations produces additional environmental burdens. The low literacy rate (70.5 percent overall and 30 percent for females) makes the dissemination of health and environmental information extremely difficult. The United Nations Development Programme Human Development Reports rank Yemen 151st of 232 nations on overall quality-of-life issues.
Bordering on the Arabian and Red Seas and the Gulf of Aden, Yemen has a coastline of 1,182 miles (1,906 kilometers). The country is located on Bab el Mandeb, the strait that links the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and is one of the most active shipping lanes in the world. The Yemeni terrain is composed of narrow coastal plains flanked by mountains and flat-topped hills, with the Arabian Peninsula dissecting the desert plains of the uplands. At least 90 percent of the land area has an arid or hyper-arid climate with high rainfall evaporation rates. Sand and dust storms are frequent in the hot summers. Along the western coast, temperatures tend to be hot and humid. In the mountains of the west, seasonal monsoons occur in direct contrast to the harsh desert conditions of the east. Natural resources include petroleum, fish, rock salt, marble, and small deposits of coal, gold, lead, nickel, and copper. With less than 3 percent arable land, the only fertile soils of Yemen are found in the west.
A study by scientists at Yale University in 2005 ranked Yemen 11th from the bottom in environmental performance, far below the comparable income and geographic groups. Scores were particularly low in the categories of biodiversity and habitat, air quality, and environmental health. Barely a fourth of rural Yemenis have access to safe drinking water, and only 14 percent of this group have access to improved sanitation. In contrast, 68 percent of urban residents have access to safe drinking water, and 76 percent have access to improved sanitation.
Environmental issues arise in Yemen from overexploitation, depletion, and pollution of valuable resources. The lack of freshwater sources, which has created a shortage of potable water, is Yemen’s major environmental problem. This shortage has been accelerated by the practice of pumping groundwater beyond the sustainable level. Scientists have estimated that without intensive water conservation, existing water basins will disappear by the mid-21st century. There is particular concern over the practice of using scarce water to grow gat, an amphetamine-like narcotic, because it prevents farmers from growing essential food products. The food supply is further threatened by extensive coastal degradation and the loss of fisheries.
Overgrazing and soil erosion are a result of desertification that occurs from the combination of agricultural mismanagement and climatic conditions. Forests are being depleted at a rate of 1.8 percent each year, with each family using an estimated one to two tons of wood a year. Deforestation is accompanied by a loss of biodiversity and habits. Of 66 endemic mammal species, five are endangered, as are 12 of 93 endemic bird species. The government has made some progress in this area by protecting the Socotra archipelago, which is known as the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean.
The Environmental Protection Council is the Yemeni agency charged with promoting environmentalism through the implementation of the National Action Plan, which focuses on strengthening water management, curbing soil degradation, creating sanctuaries, and regulating waste management. Yemen participates in the following international agreements on the environment: Biodiversity, Climate Change, Desertification, Endangered Species, Environmental Modification, Hazardous Wastes, Kyoto Protocol, Law of the Sea, and Ozone Layer Protection.
- Central Intelligence Agency, “Yemen,” The World Factbook, www.cia.gov;
- Timothy Doyle, Environmental Movements in Minority and Majority Worlds: A Global Perspective (Rutgers University Press, 2005);
- Kevin Hillstrom and Laurie Collier Hillstrom, Africa and the Middle East: A Continental Overview of Environmental Issues (ABC-CLIO, 2003);
- Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation, “Environment and Bio-Diversity,” www.mpic-yemen.org;
- One World, “Yemen: Environment,” oneworld.net;
- United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), “Human Development Report: Yemen,” hdr.org;
- UNDP, “Yemen: Natural Resources” www.undp.org.