Aden at the nexus of crises: climate change compounds Yemen’s problems

Yemen’s fourth-largest city staggers under the weight of coinciding crises. Years of war and neglect have ravaged Aden’s infrastructure, which now struggles to face the twin impacts of climate change and COVID-19.

Last April, the Yemeni city of Aden, a town known for its dry summers and general lack of rain, witnessed unprecedented torrential downpour. The rain, that lasted all day, led to flash floods which killed at least 10 people, injured 30, and destroyed more than 80 homes. The floods turned streets into rivers and caused severe damage to the city’s infrastructure. As a result, Yemen’s Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik declared Aden a “disaster area”.  Less than a month after, the government declared Aden “infested” as the coronavirus started spreading.

This isn’t the first time that floods hit Yemen’s fourth-largest city this year. On March 25th, Aden witnessed heavy rains as well. However, damage then wasn’t as severe. Residents failed to see the warning signs. 

Dr. Wadih Al-Sharjabi, associate professor of environmental sciences and deputy dean of the Center for Environmental Studies and Community Service in Yemen, blamed global warming. In an interview with Climate Tracker, Dr. Al-Sharjabi said that “the sudden changes that we are witnessing in Aden’s weather are part of the global climate change impacts”.

The floods are especially hard on a town with a torn down infrastructure. Years of conflict and the government’s negligence have left Aden city with a worn-out sewage system and a major lack of rainwater drainage channels. This has turned roads and residential neighborhoods into lakes and swamps. An ideal breeding ground for vector-borne diseases, which have filled hospitals to the brim in a time when COVID-19 is hitting the whole world.


The war on mosquitoes

Abu Ahmed, a resident of the Mansoura neighbourhood told Climate Tracker that a week after the torrential rains, he began to experience severe fever and headache symptoms accompanied by pain in his joints. He eventually became bedridden. “After getting tested it became clear that I had chikungunya fever. A few days later, all my house members got sick too and my middle son was diagnosed with dengue fever followed by malaria,” he said.

“In front of my house, the neighbourhood sewage exploded due to the floods, which left a lake that put us in a daily war with mosquitoes and various other insects, while also hindering our ability to leave the house” continued Abu Ahmed.

“Climate change negatively impacts health, especially in poor countries. Heavy rains are usually associated with a high rate of infectious diseases. Temperature, humidity, and precipitation are one of the most influencing factors for vectors of dengue, malaria, and cholera.” said Dr. Al-Sharjabi

The number of fever cases in the city has increased dramatically during May. Dr. Ishraq Al-Sibai, Undersecretary of the Ministry of Health in the temporary capital of Aden, blamed local authorities. In an exclusive interview with CT, Dr. Al-Sibai said that “local authorities hold responsibility for what is happening. They have abandoned their role as a result of political quarrels and Aden is being subject to self-rule by the transitional militia, which seeks to separate from constitutional legitimacy.”

“The health office in Aden is completely closed due to the apparent inaction of the governor of Aden and the local authority” added Dr. Al-Sibai 


Rain and sewage water blocking the road in a neighborhood in Aden
Photo: Muhammad al-Hakimi

Suspiciously unusual figures

There are no accurate figures for the situation in the city. The Statistics Department at the Ministry of Health in Aden didn’t publish any data so far. “We have limited staff, the data is huge and we cannot determine the numbers yet,”  said Dr. Al-Sibai 

Despite the lack of accurate statistics, one of the emergency centres in the north of the city reported that it had received 582 fever cases within only three days in a frightening indication of the size of the outbreak of fevers in the city.

At the beginning of May, death tolls in the city began to rise. According to General Sanad Jamil, the director of Aden Civil Status Authority, They have recorded 1193 deaths in just 20 days in May. He described the figures as “suspiciously unusual”.

Dr. Hossam Al-Kaouri a general practitioner at a governmental hospital in Aden said that “fevers have claimed the lives of the elderly in particular, but it is also possible that the deaths are due to coronavirus.” 

Official reports show that Yemen has a total of 732 coronavirus cases so far but many people, including WHO officials, share the concern that these stats are downplaying reality.

A patient getting treated for chikungunya fever in a hospital in Aden
Photo credit: Tariq Al-Hakimi

The Health Crisis

“Most cases start with infection by one of the fevers, which in turn weakens the immune system making even young patients easy prey for the coronavirus. And that’s because most of them do not adhere to the home quarantine,” added Dr. Al-Ka’ouri.

Dr. Muhammad Al-Badani, a Yemeni doctor residing in Italy, agrees with Dr. Al-Ka’ouri. “Through my analysis of the situation in Aden, current patients may be infected with one of the fevers that spread in the city and COVID19 simultaneously.”

“The immunity of the Yemeni citizens is fragile and could be the worst in the world due to malnutrition and self-medication, especially antibiotics” Dr. Al-Badani added.

A war that keeps raging

The simultaneity of the spread of corona and rampant fevers as a result of the floods is not the only challenge facing Aden. The ongoing political struggle that claimed the lives of 100,000 citizens and destroyed the country’s infrastructure, including its health system. 

The very few private hospitals and clinics in the city were forced to close their doors from fear of infection for a lack of adequate protective material. “The closure of private hospitals was a real crisis for patients which required us to intervene by obliging private hospital managers to reopen their doors to receive patients and we -the Ministry- will try to provide them with prevention tools as much as possible,” said Dr. Al-Sibai 

Other essential services are also a challenge. Electricity is unstable, with daily blackouts pushing citizens to leave their homes because of the unbearable summer heat and search for a place to spend their day even if that means they could catch the coronavirus or one of the spreading fevers. 

The Aden health crisis clearly reveals how climate change and extreme weather conditions contribute to multiplying the suffering of developing countries and increasing diseases. Even though Yemen is one of the countries that contributed the least to the issue of climate change, the people there are living a nightmare. Due to the crippled economy and the low ability to adapt to climate change impacts while also experiencing an internal conflict.

Sahar Mohammed
Sahar Mohammed is a freelance journalist based in Yemen she cover a range of topic include climate adaptation, migration and climate justice. Sahar has been a Climate Tracker fellow in 2017 and 2018.