DUBAI Many disasters loom over one of the poorest countries in the Middle East as it suffers through nearly two years of war, among them a colossal pile of waste outside Yemen's capital leeching toxic waste into its diminishing water supply.
Hardly a paragon of waste management before the war, Sanaa was at least able to separate out the most dangerous materials from the 10-million-ton hill thanks to a nearby treatment plant.
No longer. The facility was bombed by a Saudi-led military coalition battling the armed Houthi movement which controls the capital in June of last year and again last December.
Now vast stinking pools created in part by untreated medical waste accumulate at the pile's base, threatening to contaminate the water supply for the parched city which experts have long predicted will be the first capital to use up all its water.
"The main problem we're now facing is in the management of waste in Yemen that is posing a real danger to the general health of residents," said Professor Mohammed al-Qahali, head of the science and technology department at Sanaa University.
Al-Qahali warned that the pools of contaminated waste contained "hazardous chemicals that could cause a variety of diseases including cancers, birth defects, immunological disorders and many other diseases."
"THE SMELL OF ROT"
The United Nations estimates that over four-fifths of Yemen's 28 million people need some form of humanitarian aid as a near-blockade on Yemen's ports and fighting have devastated the fragile economy, spreading hunger and disease.
Saudi Arabia and its mostly Gulf Arab allies have launched thousands of air strikes against the Houthis in a bid to restore Yemen's exiled government to power.
While the bombings have repeatedly hit homes, schools, hospitals, bridges, markets and other civilian infrastructure, the coalition says it takes pains not to target innocents and blames the Houthis for deploying in civilian areas.
As U.N.-backed peace efforts have repeatedly failed to stop the fighting, residents living near the growing heap have seen their lives become more unbearable.
"At night I cover my mouth (from the smell), the smell of rot wakes me from my sleep, and it has only gotten worse since they struck the recycling plant," Shayef al-Asri said.
But the crisis may be more than a disgusting inconvenience and may threaten to end more than two millennia of urban civilization in the capital, said environment professor at Sanaa University Khaled al-Thor.
"It requires expertise and an immediate resolution, otherwise ... Sanaa will disappear from the map."
(Writing By Noah Browning; Editing by Peter Hobson)