What Impact Does Climate Change Have on Socotra's Biodiversity?

November 15, 2022 

Photo: Ala'a Aldoly 2022 - ACSYS

The Arabian Sea island of Socotra was added to the UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserves in 2003, the World Natural Heritage Site List of the same organization in 2008, and the Ramsar List in 2007. UNESCO calls Socotra "unique islands with a rich natural and cultural heritage." But since 2015, the island's distinctive coral reefs, plants, and rare species have been in danger from rapid climate change.

Recent hurricanes have hit the island and caused a lot of damage to the local environment, animals, farms, marine and land reserves, homes, and local resources. The two storms that caused the most damage to Socotra were Chapala and Megh, which hit the archipelago in 2015. 

The hurricanes still impact the indigenous population, who fear that the government will do nothing to address climate change and its effects on them and the island's biodiversity, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Dr. Salim Hamdiya al-Socotri, who has a Ph.D. in environmental protection and works at the University of Ljubljana in the Republic of Slovenia, says that nature is still working on the island to bring back its health and beauty.

Hamdiya, who is also the president of the Socotra Society for the Protection of Endangered Plants, says that the repeated hurricanes on the archipelago will make people less safe and less able to fight climate change. He adds that over the past ten years, rain, cyclones, and floods have caused a lot of damage to agriculture and jobs in Yemen and have led to widespread famine and malnutrition. 

"Yemen is one of the countries most affected by changes in climate and the environment, which have hurt food production in a big way. The UN says that the country is going through one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world and that 80% of the people there need help right away.

After being battered by hurricanes and tropical cyclones in the years 2010–2018, "Chapala," "Megh," "Mekunu," and "Loban," and floods having dominated the scene over the past three years, the country has been threatened with the loss of more than 150 species of plants, animals, and fish. "In addition, extensive oil pollution has been present off the coasts of Aden, Hadramaut, Lahj, and Hodeida since 2015," he continued.

The World Bank says that Yemen is one of the Arab countries most affected by climate change. Yemen also has a lot of development problems. With temperatures expected to rise by between 1.2 and 3.3 degrees over the next three decades, Yemen will likely experience more prolonged drought and heat wave periods in the years to come. In addition to the country's severe lack of water, deteriorating farmland, and lack of food security, this figure indicates that the weather will worsen. 

Agriculture is the primary source of income for two-thirds of Yemen's population.

The Socotra Archipelago in South Yemen, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to more than 900 plant species. Of these, 37% are endemic, which means they can't be found anywhere else in the world. These plants, which include the Dragonblood tree and 11 varieties of frankincense trees, have been weakened by damage from the cyclones Chapala and Megh and exposed to attacks from bark beetles, which have destroyed 30% of the plants, according to a UNESCO study titled "Nature and People."

On the island, there are more than 290 species of birds, 11 endemic species, 680 species of fish, 230 species of solid coral reefs (5 endemics), 30 species of soft coral reefs, 300 species of crustaceans (7 endemics), 490 species of mollusks, and 230 species of algae.

The Socotra archipelago is under a lot of threat to its biodiversity. In addition to climate change, human overgrazing is a primary reason why many species, such as the endangered dragon blood and frankincense tree, cannot reproduce.

United Nations research shows that people using land to grow food is still the leading cause of biodiversity loss. However, climate change is also a significant cause of this loss because it changes marine, terrestrial, and freshwater ecosystems.

The chance of marine and coastal ecosystems being permanently lost rises with rising temperatures. For instance, over the past 50 years, living coral reefs have decreased by almost 50%, and further warming threatens to wipe out nearly all of the remaining coral reefs.

Dr. Gamal Bawazir, an expert and environmental consultant, says that climate change's droughts and floods often hurt Socotra's land and sea ecosystems and biodiversity. 

Also, the hurricanes that hit them in recent years killed a lot of fish and coral colonies, bleached coral reefs along their northern coast, damaged mangrove forests in the Shoab and Neet regions, and uprooted a lot of trees and bushes in the coastal plain and highlands. They caused landslides, soil erosion, wind, rain, and floods, damaging public and private property.

The World Monuments Fund (WMF) says that the changing climate threatens the Socotra Archipelago's biodiversity, architectural heritage, cultural traditions, and local ways of living.

Dr. Gamal Bawazir emphasizes the importance of developing strategies and plans to adapt to climate change and working to lessen the human effects of unplanned development activities, such as changing land use, filling up water bodies with solid waste, overgrazing, and fishing. All of this raises the urgent issue of the island's vulnerability to the effects of climate change.

According to Dr. Abdel-Qader Al-Kharaz, a former head of Yemen's general authority for environmental protection, the island of Socotra needs to set up a hurricane early warning system connected to the warning centers in the Sultanate of Oman and India. Dr. Al-Kharaz adds that for Socotra to keep the diversity of its animals and plants, it is essential to stop building along the coast, stop destroying coral reefs, which help lessen the damage of hurricanes, and replant the native plants in the dragon blood forests, which are in danger of going extinct.

The "Convention on Biological Diversity," which the Yemeni government signed in 1992, protected the Socotra archipelago until UNESCO named it a World Natural Heritage Site in July 2008 and a World Marine Site of Biological Importance in January 2017, according to the Yemen Tourism Promotion Council's official website.

According to the Yemeni Government, in the last ten years, hurricanes caused about $2 billion in damage and losses in eastern Yemen, especially in Socotra, Mahra, and Hadramaut. Floods also killed about 300 people.

Bassam Al-Qadi 

Bassam is a scientific researcher and journalist covering climate and environmental issues.