Cyclone Mekunu batters Yemen's island of Socotra leaving 40 people missing

Politically tense situation on island first revealed by The Independent expected to deteriorate after massive storm devastates unique Unesco-protected site

Friday 25 May 2018 17:58
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Flooding in Yemen's Socotra island after cyclone hits

The Yemeni island of Socotra has been devastated by one of the biggest storms in recent memory, leaving at least 40 people missing, roads and buildings destroyed and causing unknown damage to the island’s precious ecosystem.

Governor Ramzi Mahrous said that Cyclone Mekunu made landfall on Wednesday but the weather conditions were so severe the authorities were only able to begin assessing the damage properly on Friday. The severe storm is now heading towards southern Oman on the Arabian Peninsula, where people in coastal areas have been warned to evacuate.

It is feared the missing people, among them Yemeni, Sudanese, Somali and Indian nationals, are dead after being swept out to sea in the flash flooding. At least 19 of the missing were aboard boats which sank or ran aground during the storm.

The tense political situation on the island – revealed by The Independent earlier this month to be the subject of a secret power struggle between the Arab governments fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen’s war – will undoubtedly deteriorate as a result of the desperate circumstances.

The Yemeni government has declared a state of emergency and Saudi Arabia and the UAE have landed at least two plane loads of emergency aid on the island’s lone airstrip.

Several residents on the island were contacted for comment by The Independent but could not be reached. It is believed the electric supply is out in several parts of the island, including much of the two main towns of Hadibo and Qalansiyah.

Thousands of goats and other animals – essential to almost all of the underdeveloped island’s residents as part of their livelihoods – are also believed to have drowned.

Socotra is known as the ‘Galapagos of the Indian Ocean’ for its unique flora and flora, including almost 700 endemic species. It is not known how much of its protected wildlife, including the rare dragon blood’s tree, so-called for its red sap, has been affected by the cyclone.

Socotra was hit by two severe storms in 2015 which upended hundreds of the previous trees and also killed a significant amount of coral – vital for the marine ecosystem and fish stocks. At least six people died and up to 70 per cent of the island’s roads were left unusable.

Environmentalists have warned the island, like most isolated ecosystems, is under serious threat from sea level rise and changing temperatures caused by climate change.

It was the cyclones three years ago that first led to significant UAE interest in the Yemeni island.

The wealthy Gulf nation initially sent aid to help rebuild, but later built a military base on the geopolitically strategic island.

Tensions between the Yemeni government and the Emirates over Socotra’s future came to a head earlier this month after Yemeni prime minister Ahmed bin Daghr demanded UAE troops leave the island.

Saudi Arabia, the lynchpin of the Arab coalition fighting in Yemen’s three-year-old civil war against the Iran-backed Houthis, was drafted in to mediate the UAE’s departure last week.

The Independent’s reporting, however, suggests that there are still UAE soldiers stationed on Socotra, as well as a new Saudi military presence.

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