Arab heritage body sounds alarm as rain destroys homes in Old City of Sanaa

More than 100 of the centuries-old houses have crumbled already, according to rebels who control Yemeni capital

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The Arab affiliate of Unesco has called for urgent action to save ancient homes in the Old City of Sanaa after more than 100 were damaged by heavy rains in Yemen this year.

"We are pained when we see another of our old Arab cities losing part of its original historical features," the chairwoman of the Arab Regional Centre for World Heritage, Sheikha Mai bint Mohammed Al Khalifa, said in remarks reported by the Bahrain News Agency.

"We call on all those concerned with the world human heritage to take urgent action to save the Yemeni community in Sanaa and its cultural and urban fabric."

Unesco listed Sanaa’s Old City as a World Heritage Site in 1986 and placed it on its World Heritage in Danger list in 2015.

This year's rains, which began mid-April and last into early September, have been exceptionally heavy, adding to what the UN describes as the world's worst humanitarian crisis resulting from the country’s five-year-old civil war.

Sanaa resident Adel San'ani told Reuters he saw five houses severely damaged at the weekend.

"The families have no shelter. A local bank launched a campaign to distribute plastic sheeting to act as roofs," he said.

Muhammad Ali Al Talhi's house partially collapsed on Friday as heavy rain battered Sanaa, leaving him and his family of six women and six children homeless.

"Everything we had is buried," he said, standing amid ancient debris and mud.

Aqeel Saleh Nassar, deputy head of the Historic Cities Preservation Authority, said about 5,000 of the towering buildings in the old city have leaky roofs and 107 have partially collapsed roofs. The authority has been working with Unesco and other funds to preserve some.

Residents no longer maintain the structures, leading to cracks and weakness, Mr Nassar told Reuters.

House in the Old City date from before the 11th century. Unesco describes the area as “an extraordinary density of rammed earth and burnt brick towers rising several stories above stone-built ground floors, strikingly decorated with geometric patterns of fired bricks and white gypsum”.

Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who have controlled Sanaa since pushing out the internationally recognised government in late 2014, appealed this week to Unesco to save the city's heritage.

They said 111 houses had partly or completely collapsed in recent weeks.