Published on Arab Voices

Climate change finds the lost world of Socotra Island

I wasn’t in Socotra or the southern Yemeni city of Aden when the two cyclones hit them in mid-November, but I have a big family and many friends who live there. As I listened intently to the news, I was thinking about the impact of natural disasters on top of man-made ones, such as conflict, and wondering why poor Yemenis have to pay a price for things they haven’t caused and are not always a part of.
Boat trip in Socotra by HopeHill
Boat trip in Socotra
Photo Credit: HopeHill

Socotra is a large island that is known as an environmentalist’s paradise. Often called “the lost world,” it is home to hundreds of rare plants and birds, many of them native only to the island. Its human population is small, only 40,000 people, and Socotra has no proper infrastructure—its first proper road was built relatively recently, in 2011. Its remote location, about 350 kilometers (210 miles) off Yemen’s southern coast, has so far placed it beyond the reach of Yemen’s 8 month-old conflict. But it has not escaped the impact of climate change. Cyclones Chapala and Megh both struck it within just one week—the first time two cyclones (one a hurricane, the other downgraded to a tropical storm) have hit it so close together in the same season.

Researchers attribute this unusual phenomenon—of cyclones in the Arabian Sea—to the effects of El Nino, along with climate change and changing levels of air pollution, which may be altering the pattern of tropical cyclone activity in the region, moving it from one part of the Indian Ocean to another.
Dragon's Blood Tree, Socotra Island by Rod Waddington
Dragon's Blood Tree, Socotra Island
Photo credit: Rod Waddington

Since the cyclones hit, people in Socotra have been living outside in the open, or camping in public buildings. Some Gulf nations delivered emergency aid, such as tents, but there aren’t enough of them to go round. More than 700 houses across the island, most of them basic and built of stone, have been destroyed. Damage to the local economy is also huge, with the island’s fishing industry devastated by the loss of about 785 fishing boats and 1,130 fishing nets. The main harbor at Socotra has sustained damage. The large boats and traditional wooden dhows that fisherman use have been unable to berth there.

“We were not prepared for such a natural disaster, we didn’t know what to do,” said Ali Salem, a 37 year-old fisherman who lives on Socotra . “I felt that the sea was angry with us. Lots of people lost their livelihoods.”

The cyclones have put the island’s modest infrastructure, its roads and telecommunications networks, out of order. They also had a huge impact on areas of mainland Yemen, such as the governorates of the Hadramaut, Shabwah, and Abyan. In total, 26 people are known to have been killed and 78 injured by flooding, almost one thousand houses in all destroyed, and an estimated 50,000 people displaced—18,000 of them in Socotra, almost half the island’s population.

​Yemen is already grappling with catastrophe because of war. Conflict has raged since April and has had a severe impact on the country’s limited capacity to deal with unpredictable natural disasters.
Hadibo Sunset, Socotra Island by Rod Waddington
Hadibo Sunset, Socotra Island
Photo Credit: Rod Waddington
The aftermath of Cyclones Chapala and Megh are a reminder of the kind of challenges Yemen is likely to face more of in the future. Even once peace is achieved, climate change will continue to pose a threat. This time, amid conflict on the mainland, the emergency response was poor. A future Yemeni government could build emergency shelters on Socotra island to make homes more resilient to climate change.


Ahmad Lajam

Disaster Risk Management Specialist

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