Conflict in Yemen: lessons for citizen environmental monitoring

Conflict in Yemen: lessons for citizen environmental monitoring

The conflict in Yemen is likely to have produced a range of TRW threats for the civilian population but in common with other conflicts, data on environmental risks has been largely absent from the discourse or has been subject to media distortion. Andy Garrity considers whether the approaches used to document the use of cluster munitions during the fighting could help inform citizen and activist data collection on conflict pollution.

The Houthi militia uprising in Yemen in 2014 saw the internationally recognised President Abd Rabbuh Mansu Hadi flee to neighbouring Saudi Arabia and the beginning of a military intervention by a coalition of nine Arab states. As violent clashes between troops loyal to President Hadi and the Houthi militias spread, Hadi called for international assistance and operation Decisive Storm was launched on the 25th March 2015.

The Saudi-led coalition has been supported by US intelligence and weapons in a struggle that has been widely viewed as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which backs the Houthis. Extensive air strikes were launched against military targets, often located close to and within populated areas.

Operation Decisive Storm officially ended on the 27th April, and was replaced with Operation Renewal of Hope, which was intended to replace military action with political activities, however fighting and air strikes in urban areas continued. Sadaa province, a Houthi stronghold, was declared a military target and civilians were advised to leave the area. Meanwhile the UN Humanitarian Coordinator warned that the indiscriminate bombing of urban areas breaches international law. NGOs and OCHA have called for access to militia controlled areas of Yemen and for greater international assistance. A number of ceasefires to allow humanitarian aid to enter Yemen have been announced and broken as fighting, shelling and air strikes resumed.

The war’s toxic remnants

The practice of targeting urban areas in air strikes generates both direct and indirect pollution. The pounding of Yemen’s cities has led to the destruction of buildings and infrastructure, which generates huge volumes of building rubble and pulverised building materials.

Substances in building materials, such as heavy metals or asbestos, can pose chemical risks. The particle size of the dusts can also pose a physical threat to respiratory health. Dusts may also be contaminated with explosives residues and combustion products. The presence of rubble hampers humanitarian access, the movement of civilians and UXO clearance. Power generation sites were also targeted, causing long lasting and widespread blackouts across the country. Loss of power also impacted water supplies.

A huge blast rocks the Hadda district of the Yemeni capital as a site storing SCUD missiles is destroyed in a Saudi air strike.

A huge blast rocks the Hadda district of the Yemeni capital as a site storing SCUD missiles is destroyed in a Saudi air strike.

Air strikes have targeted SCUD missile storage facilities such as the one that destroyed the Faj Attan base in the Hadda district of the Yemeni capital Sanna on the 20th April. SCUD missile sites typically contain a number of potentially harmful and toxic substances, in addition to explosive warheads. SCUD missile propellant is a mixture of kerosene or carcinogenic unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH)[1], and an oxidising agent – inhibited fuming nitric acid (IFNA) – which is highly corrosive and harmful to humans[2].

Cluster munitions and the potential for citizen observatories

On May 5th, Human Rights Watch reported that cluster munitions had been used by Saudi aircraft. The munitions had been supplied by the US; Saudi Arabia and the US are not signatories to the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Human Rights Watch had used a video uploaded on a pro-Houthi Youtube channel to geolocate the attack, activists on the ground were then able to visit the site and photograph the remnants of the CBU-105 sensor fused weapon. The news gained widespread media attention and led to condemnation by a number of states.

Given the pressing need to increase the visibility of environmental damage and TRW incidents during conflict, could similar research approaches be used to document conflict pollution? In addition to generating political interest, this could help inform post-conflict responses.

We undertook social media monitoring during the conflict. While an increasingly valuable tool, it is most effective where incidents are highly visible, such as attacks on military or industrial facilities. However all too often footage is poor quality or emotionally or politically charged. Nevertheless, with some guidance on what to look for, how to record it safely and how to report it in a neutral fashion, there is massive potential for civilians and activists to gather data that can be integrated into environmental assessment and response. As has been demonstrated with the recent use of cluster munitions, such documentation could also prove important for efforts to increase accountability for harm.

In addition to photographic or video data, citizen or activist data collection could be augmented by the provision of simple sampling packs by humanitarian or environmental networks. These could help determine the presence of certain energetic compounds or industrial chemicals. Low cost particulate matter samplers could also be used to collect and analyse respirable contaminates in the air that are a threat to health.

While these approaches would not be as detailed as those expected from a fully comprehensive post-conflict assessment, indicative data could help highlight areas of concern and help document changes in environmental quality over time. Open access to environmental information would also help empower and engage affected communities and potentially reduce exposures. Serious thought would need to be given to how these different data sets could be managed, utilised and communicated.


Progress on protection of the environment during and after conflict is not just a question of framing the legal debate; it’s also a question of data gathering and visibility. Increased data collection also provides opportunities for empowering and engaging communities, both of which will help increase the protection of civilians from TRW threats.

These are the areas that we will increasingly be focusing on as we enter the next phase of the TRW Project. Social media and low cost assessment technologies offer great promise and through partnerships with domestic and international organisations, and activists on the ground, we hope to fully explore the opportunities they might provide.

Andy Garrity is a Researcher with the TRW Project.


[1] ATSDR  ToxfaQs Information Sheet (2013): hydrazine, 1,1-dimethylhydrazine and 1,2-dimethylhydrazine

[2] Hazards of Chemical Rockets and Propellants, Volume III Liquid Propellants, Chemical Propulsion Information Agency, Publication Number 394, May 1972

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