Abdul Azayn says he feels safer since the government, helped by local people using only shovels, recently completed an earthwork to protect his village alongside Wadi Murr from the kind of flash flood that last autumn claimed the lives of two neighbours.
“They were a man and wife and they lived just here,” says Azayn, 60, gesturing with both hands at the empty patch of soil under his feet. “I rebuilt my own house from scratch, but we escaped.”
The villagers believe their “dam” (it’s probably big enough to qualify) would have held the flood water back.
It may not be as impressive as another, even more recent, one a short distance downstream – reinforced by caged rocks and financed by the World Bank. But local Red Crescent workers say the example of the former helped inspire the latter.
Now the terrain is dry it’s possible to drive about half a kilometre across the floor of the massive Wadi Murr, skirting the sandbanks, backed-up tree trunks and other debris.
But the idea of being in a small thatch hut next to a wadi like this in full flood is very scary.
It’s exactly 20 years since Abdullah Ali Naji first noticed the flash-flood danger increasing in wadis here in the mountainous hinterland behind the Red Sea port of al-Hodeidah.
Ali Naji, the executive director of the local branch of the Yemen Red Crescent (YRC), recalls there were particularly bad flash floods in 1989, “and now they come almost every year”.
The matter-of-fact dictionary definition of a wadi is simply a valley that’s dry except in the rainy season. In this part of Yemen people could, they were once confident, safely build their homes just above the seasonal high-water mark.
Not any more.
“Now we get flash floods in places we never had them before,” says Ali Naji.
A community on Wadi al-Rimah was caught especially badly, not having suffered a serious flood for at least 40 years and “never imagining” they could get one now. A recent flood washed away many newly built homes.
“There’s usually about 30 minutes’ warning, an hour at most, before the torrent arrives,” says Ali Naji.
Sometimes there’s no warning at all, with water cascading down from the mountains like a tsunami into regions where the weather is fine. And sometimes at night.
“Climb, just climb”
Some community-based early-warning procedures do exist, though Ali Naji describes them charitably as “non-systematic”, involving hand-carried lamps.
In the Wadi Murr flood, villagers used lamps at night to alert drivers on the nearby main road to Saudi Arabia, stopping them running off the damaged bridge traversing the wadi, probably saving many lives.
“But for the people themselves,” he says, “there’s only one thing they can do: climb, just climb as high as they can.”
The YRC al-Hodeidah branch is dealing with the aftermath of three recent and virtually simultaneous wadi floods: in al-Zubeid, al-Marawah and Wadi Murr, where it’s planning a new sub-branch and where even a purpose-built storm drain does not provide complete security.
Is it all truly “climate change”? Ali Naji points out the population has increased significantly in the last 50 years and some villages are at dangerously low elevations, even without the apparent new risk.
But asked directly whether he blames population pressure or climate change, Ali Naji does not pause: “climate change,” he says.
Evidence comes from elsewhere in Yemen too, including the October 2008 disaster which centred on the Hadramaut governorate but affected about a third of the country and triggered a major international response.
“I asked very elderly people if they could remember anything like it,” says Mohamed Yahya Sawlan, YRC disaster management coordinator in the capital, Sana’a. “And really they couldn’t.”
Overall in Yemen, the picture of climate-change impacts is similar to the Horn of Africa on the other side of the Red Sea: drought and desertification punctuated by torrential downpours that are useless unless “harvested” or channelled in some way.
Abbas Zabarah, YRC secretary general, particularly notices the hotter temperature in Sana’a (elevation 2,200 metres). “It was rare for it to get to 25 centrigade in May,” he says.
“There is less seasonal rain and [another echo of life in Horn countries] farmers are struggling.
“In the heat more people are complaining of respiratory problems too.”
Now Yemen’s coast faces an additional risk: storm surges.
Research recently released by the World Bank shows it’s among the five most vulnerable countries worldwide in terms of both affected coastal area and endangered population.
The bank also estimates Yemen is one of seven countries in which areas prone to storm surges account for more than 50 per cent of gross domestic product.
Hasan al-Hardh, a pharmacist working on malaria prevention in al-Hodeidah with the ministry of health, is a man who thinks a lot about the new dangers facing his community and he ranks them simply: drought, flash floods and buildings collapsing, in that order.
The old city of al-Hodeidah is a good example of the unique architecture that’s charmed and fascinated visitors to Yemen for centuries, “but many building haven’t been maintained for at least 200 years,” says al-Hardh. “They’ve been seriously undermined by flood water.”
The key priorities at the moment, he argues, are to keep the wadis and storm drains clear of rubbish, and to persuade people to settle higher – harking back to the tradition of building homes on cool mountain tops that were more secure from human threats.
Amidst 21st-century climate danger, the old Yemeni architect’s maxim of the higher the safer has found new currency.