The long-term impact of explosive weapons in populated areas in Yemen

Aden, destruction caused by airstrikes Aden, destruction caused by airstrikes © Humanity & Inclusion

This article is a brief presentation of the Humanity & Inclusion’s (HI) study on the ‘Long-Term Impact of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas in Yemen

HI, co-founder of the International Network on Explosive Weapons, released last May a study on the long-term impact of explosive weapons in populated areas in Yemen.

In 2020, Yemen has entered its 6th year of conflict. Even before the conflict, the country already heavily relied on imports, was characterized by an overall weak public infrastructure system, water scarcity, and diffused poverty. Today, three quarters of its population are in need of humanitarian aid. 

The use of explosive weapons ‘with wide area effects’ in populated areas has been substantial throughout the conflict, causing not only ‘deadly consequences for civilians’, but also having ‘a dramatic impact on the infrastructure and systems that civilians depend upon to access essential services.’

The study defines explosive weapons as a ‘category of weapons that project an explosive blast, heat, and fragmentation around a point of detonation.’

The effects caused by the use of explosive weapons are categorized in three stages: (1) primary effects, represented by ‘the immediate impacts caused by the high-pressure blast wave resulting from the detonation of explosive weapons’, and resulting in ‘immediate physical injuries and fatalities’; (2) secondary effects, that are ‘created by the interaction of the blast wave and the environment in which the explosive weapons detonate’, and causing injuries and fatalities among civilians due to ‘structural collapse of the building(s), shattered glass, or fire’; (3) tertiary effects, also known as ‘reverberating effects’, consisting in ‘the long-term impacts on people’s living conditions caused by explosive weapons damage’, and causing ‘damage to or destruction of vital infrastructure, such as shelter, sanitation systems, health facilities, and livelihoods’, including ‘the wide range of consequences caused by the reduced access to services and the destruction of infrastructure that people need to survive’. The focus of the report is on the third category, the ‘tertiary’, ‘long-term’ or ‘reverberating’ effects.

Since the beginning of the conflict in Yemen, over ’40,000 armed conflict events have been recorded’. Among them, ‘nearly every form of explosive weapon has been used’. The civilians are victims of a consistently indiscriminate use of explosive ordnance, including also ‘prohibited weapons such as landmines and cluster munitions’. 

The port of Hodeidah is the largest in Yemen, ‘and a vital lifeline for food security.’ Before the conflict, ‘Yemen imported nearly 90% of its necessary goods including food, medicine and fuel.’ During the first months of the conflict, in August 2015, the port was heavily targeted and damaged by airstrikes. The result was an immediate reduction of its capacity to ‘receive critical imports’ upon which the country depends. Between the airstrikes and September of the same year, ‘there was a reported 28% rise in food prices’ across the country.

Even before the conflict, ‘Yemen’s road system was underdeveloped; of 50,000 km of roads throughout the country, only 14,000 km were paved.’ As of 2019, the World Bank estimated that over 24% of the country’s road network was ‘either partially or fully destroyed due to the crisis.’ The UN protection Cluster in Yemen has ‘recorded 91 airstrikes incidents affecting main roads’, resulting in ‘hindered access or restricted freedom of movement for over 1 million households.’ The destruction of roads results in damage to all services, ‘as goods and people can no longer move efficiently or safely.’ For example, a journey from the major seaports of the country to Sana’a, and other large cities, which used to take two days before the conflict, ‘can now take up to five days. The consequence: the cost of key commodities such as wheat, flour, and steel has tripled since 2015. Moreover, the impact of ‘road closures and the destruction of transportation networks’ increased the difficulty of transporting and delivering humanitarian aid, ‘to trade economic goods, to maintain livelihoods, and to access health facilities’.

Also ‘Yemen’s medical infrastructure was weak and located primarily in urban areas’ before the conflict. More than ‘half the Yemeni population, and up to two-thirds in rural areas, lacked access to healthcare services.’ As of today, ‘an estimated 19.7 million people lack access to adequate healthcare’, and 49 per cent of the country’s health facilities are no longer ‘fully functional.’ The population has access to only ten health workers per 10,000 people.

Between 2015 and 2017, 35 aerial attacks on 32 health facilities were documented by Mwatana for Human Rights. The most affected governatorate was Sa’ada, which saw 27 attacks. For example, an MSF-supported hospital in the governatorate, located in the Hayden District, was destroyed by an aerial attack on the 26th of October 2015. Being the only hospital ‘within a 80-kilometre radius, the reverberating impact’ of its destruction resulted in ‘200,000 people with no access to lifesaving medical care.’

Other reverberating impacts of the destruction of health facilities, identified by the World Bank, are: ‘the disruption of immunisation campaigns, the spread of diseases facilitated by vulnerability caused by malnutrition, inadequate water and sanitation, and an increasing vacuum of services by health staff deserting due to insecurity as impacts from the conflict.’ Additionally, ‘health facilities not physically damaged by explosive weapons are nonetheless impacted by damage caused through explosive weapons use on the wider civilian infrastructure such as roads or ports.’ Furthermore, the ability of civilians to ‘reach medical services’ is restricted ‘long after the bombing ends.’ Some patients ‘reported having travelled up to 16 hours to access services.’ Those delays can result in ‘life-long impairments, particularly for victims with complicated injuries caused by explosive weapons.’

Explosive weapons also damage water infrastructure, which is critical in a country that has an aridic to hyper-aridic climate, with limited groundwater resources. Before the conflict only 52 per cent of the population had access to safe drinking water. Now, over two thirds of the population require Water, Sanitation and Hygiene support. 12.6 million are in acute need. It has been reported by Oxfam that only in the first seven weeks of the conflict, airstrikes damaged “40% of the water supply systems in Hajjah and Al Hodeidah governatorates”, thus “depriving an estimated 3 million people of clean water.” 

Access to water in the country is also negatively impacted by ‘rising price of fuel, influenced by the blockade in Yemen but also the destruction of roads and ports necessary to import goods’. In some areas of the country, the price of bottled water has risen by 45 per cent. All those indirect impacts caused by explosive weapons also results in an increase ‘of the vulnerability of the population to water-borne disease, including cholera.’

Explosive weapons have also long-term impacts on specific populations of the country. Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), amounting to 3.65 million people are ‘the most vulnerable to the impact of explosive weapons.’ Already ‘driven from their homes from bombings’, IDPs see the resources and services necessary to their survival endangered by explosive weapons. Also IDPs’ hosting sites are frequently attacked.

Disabled persons are ‘the most marginalised in crisis-affected communities.’ Services are disrupted, and the resources available decrease substantively. HI has found that 86 per cent of the persons with disabilities in Yemen have problems in accessing services ‘due to barriers such as physical access and safety during travelling, along with economic and social discrimination.’ Before the conflict, there were an estimated 3 million persons with disabilities in Yemen. Now, an additional 1 million people ‘with specific needs have been identified, including persons with disabilities, female and child heads of households, unaccompanied elderly, survivors of trauma, and other women and children at risk.’ Furthermore, the injuries caused by explosive weapons ‘cause complex cases among survivors, such as spinal cord injuries and amputation.’ Those injuries require ‘long-term specialised services’, ‘whose availability is limited in Yemen.’

Women and girls, that in a society like Yemen are responsible for domestic and caretaking roles, see the practical tasks expected from them more burdensome and dangerous, as a consequence of the destruction of essential infrastructure. Additionally, women can be ‘disproportionately affected by disruptions to health services’: 1.14 million pregnant or lactating women are facing acute malnutrition.

The future of children is undermined by the destruction of schools and education services. 256 schools were destroyed by explosive weapons as of 2019. Children are also ‘some of the most dependent on Yemen’s fragile infrastructure’, and 2.1 million children under five are acutely malnourished. Furthermore, in light of their naturally risk-taking behaviour, ‘children are among the populations most at-risk from contamination by explosive weapons’: they will often ‘handle unexploded ordnance and even IED without recognising the danger.’ Explosive weapons also have long-term effects on the mental health of children. Save the Children has found this year that ‘over half of the children surveyed in Yemen reported feelings of sadness and depression.’

The reverberating effects of contamination by unexploded ordnance is another issue that ‘will affect Yemen’s population for decades.’ This is because ‘air-dropped ordnance is difficult and time-consuming to clear.’ Those explosive weapons have a failure rate that is estimated to be as high as 10 per cent.

The HI study concludes with some recommendations to address the reverberating impact of explosive weapons.

First, the Organization recommends to the international community to ‘acknowledge the severe and long-lasting indirect or reverberating effects of explosive weapons use, which devastate the economic, health, and social dimensions of a society.’

All states are urged to commit to ‘avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas’, as it was urged by the UN Secretary General, and the International Committee of the Red Cross. The form recommended is that of a political declaration, ‘which should describe and acknowledge the humanitarian harm from explosive weapons’, and committing to avoid their use in populated areas.

Finally, HI calls for a declaration recognizing the direct and indirect effect of explosive weapons, which ‘must further recognize the rights and needs of all victims to receive adequate assistance based on their needs in a non-discriminatory manner’ and to receive ‘support towards the full realisation of their rights and full participation in their societies.’


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Author: Philippe H.M. Leroy Beaulieu


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