ANAA, Yemen — Arriving in Yemen last week, I had an experience I’d never had before.
I drove into Sanaa, the capital, on the main thoroughfare, through a raging torrent of water. I was staying in the old city, a United Nations World Heritage site, which is accessed primarily by an ancient, moat-like road, known as the Sailah. It used to be made of dirt, shrub and pepper trees, which for generations absorbed water in the rainy season, although in downpours it would still flood. But, in 1995, at Yemen’s request, the United States paid to have it paved. Because Yemenis have largely deforested all the mountains around Sanaa, the lack of trees, vegetation and topsoil means the rainwater rushes off the mountains, enters the paved city and finds its way to the Sailah, turning the road into a rushing aqueduct.
Meanwhile, up north, the most violent rainstorms in 25 years in Saudi Arabia just killed 13 Saudis in flooding and had television airing “footage of people clinging to trees and cars trapped by water,” the BBC reported.
It is impossible to say if these more powerful storms are the result of global warming, which is expected to make the hots hotter, the dries dryer and the wets wetter in certain areas. What is not in doubt is that something is changing.
What also is not in doubt is that these weather changes are adding to the stress on frail infrastructure across the Arab world. This, combined with continued high population growth, is helping to fuel the Arab uprisings against the old Arab regimes and adding challenges for the new ones.
Most of the old generation of Arab leaders never gave much thought to natural capital: the forests, shrubs and ecosystems that naturally store water, prevent runoff, flooding and silting. The new generation will have to be environmentalists, otherwise their new politics will be overwhelmed by environmental stresses.
In 2009, an activist encouraged then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh to name the endangered Arabian leopard as Yemen’s “national animal,” in hopes of preventing its extinction and promoting more environmental awareness. (Where the wildlife thrives, the people usually thrive.)
As the biggest predator, the Arabian leopard can survive only if the antelope, the rabbits, the partridges, gazelles, ibex and hyrax that it feeds on also survive. Those animals, in turn, need a healthy ecosystem of springs, shrub lands, topsoil and forests. Not surprisingly, since all of those are disappearing, so, too, are the leopards.
In 2009, an American teacher in Yemen, David Stanton, set up a foundation here to protect endangered wildlife, focusing on the leopards.
Stanton started his work before the democracy revolution here in 2011, and back then, he recalled, “people would come to me and say: `Why are you protecting leopards when we have leopards in the government?”’
Of course, they were right. Arab dictators were at the top of the food chain in their countries. Eventually, though, they and their cronies and families ate so much themselves — while also despoiling their natural capital — that there was too little left for the rest of their burgeoning populations and their people revolted.
The governments experiencing Arab awakenings, though, will never sustainably rebuild their countries’ human capital if they don’t also rebuild their natural capital. If you visit Yemen in five years and hear that the Arabian leopards are extinct, you’ll know the revolution here failed. But if you hear that the leopard population is on the rise again, there is a high likelihood its people will be as well. Watch the leopards.
Thomas L. Friedman is a three-time Pulitzer Prize winning columnist with the New York Times. His work is syndicated internationally.