An open letter to Yemeni leaders: time is now to act on water

Summary: the foremost expert on Yemen’s water issues has a message for the leaders of the various warring factions: the water scarcity crisis threatens Yemen’s very existence and co-ordinated action must be taken immediately to avert an impending catastrophe.

We thank our regular contributor Helen Lackner for today’s article. A Yemen expert, Helen works as a freelance rural development consultant. Saqi Books has published the paperback edition with new material of her Yemen In Crisis, now subtitled Devastating Conflict, Fragile Hope. It is a seminal study of the war, what lies behind it and what can happen for it to end. In July 2022 Routledge published her latest book Yemen: Poverty and Conflict. Helen’s most recent Arab Digest podcast is available here.

To Yemen’s leaders

Regardless of position, party or stated programme, all of you appear to be exclusively concerned with political power and control over Yemen’s people and the country’s marketable limited natural resources, primarily hydrocarbons, alongside access to international humanitarian and other funding. Such a short-term vision threatens Yemen’s very existence as it ignores the country’s most fundamental problem, water scarcity. You must realise that without water there is no life. Addressing this issue should be your first and foremost priority, even though there are many other very important environmental, social and economic problems faced by Yemenis.

International standards state that the threshold for absolute water scarcity is 500 cubic metres (m3) per capita annually; if agricultural and other uses are included the figure is 1000 m3.  Yemen now has 74m3 or 15% of this. As the population increases and the resource remains static, or indeed worsens as a result of over extraction and other climate change factors, this figure is expected to drop to 54m3 by 2050. Exhaustion of water sources is already forcing people out of many villages. When their water runs out families first move to where there is more water. This increases pressure on those areas’ water supply and many other sectors: housing, education, medical services, jobs, infrastructure, etc. This gradually creates or worsens social tensions leading to conflict.

With exhaustion of many important aquifers predicted within the next generation, much of Yemen will become uninhabitable, eventually pushing people out of the country.
Much of Yemen is predicted to become uninhabitable within the next generation due to the exhaustion of important aquifers.

With exhaustion of many important aquifers predicted within the next generation, much of Yemen will become uninhabitable, eventually pushing people out of the country. Water scarcity refugees are likely to force their way into the neighbouring GCC states, rather than across the sea towards Somalia and Ethiopia, which sent more than 77000 migrants to Yemen in the first six months of this year.

Most analyses assess that 90% of Yemen’s water is used in agriculture. Of the 3.5 billion m3 of water used annually, only 2.1 billion m3 is replenished, the rest coming from fossil aquifers whose renewal requires millions of years; it is thus effectively mined and non-renewable within any foreseeable future. Much of the water is used for deep well irrigation of high value export [grapes, mangoes] and local commercial crops, qat in particular in the highlands. Over-exploitation is primarily due to unregulated deep well drilling in recent decades and the use of diesel pumps and more recently solar ones to extract the water. Policies subsidising equipment and fuel have favoured this process, mostly to the benefit of powerful landowners.

Domestic water is a major issue: prior to the war only 47% of the rural population had access to safe water, a figure estimated to have dropped to 31% now, while the sanitation situation is even worse, dropping from 21% to 8%. In urban areas 56% of households had water but more than half depended partly at least on private truck deliveries. While Taiz presents an extreme case with the 40% of households connected to the municipal network receiving water about once every two months, it is a warning to others, particularly concerning the delicate issue of rural-urban transfers, also now noticeable in Aden. The destruction of infrastructure during the war has reduced urban distribution to about a quarter of what it was. Given the importance of clean water and sanitation for health, and when half the country’s medical facilities are not operational, mortality and morbidity have worsened. Domestic water and sanitation services are now totally inadequate and reflect both the state’s weakness over decades and the impact of the now more than eight year old war.

The problem can be solved.  First it is important to remember that the situation with respect to water availability is not the same everywhere and this needs to be taken into consideration in any planning. Second, very simply, as about 90% of water is used in agriculture, the transfer of only a small part of this towards domestic and other uses would enable Yemenis to continue living and even flourishing at home. The basic principle must be to give first priority to human needs for drinking and other domestic purposes followed by livestock needs. Non-agricultural income generation must be the next priority, focusing on a range of low water needing micro, small and larger enterprises which will have to be created for the increasing population. Tourism, for example, is a sector with great potential in a peaceful Yemen, but must be managed in an environmentally friendly manner, in particular with low water usage.

Agriculture is, and will remain, a major element of Yemeni livelihoods, as 70% of the population live in rural areas and about half work in agriculture. About 60% of cultivated land is rain fed: this sector, neglected for generations, must get strong national and international support, including research and dissemination of fast maturing drought resistant staple crops like sorghum and wheat and of high value cash crops. These are all essential to enable rain fed farming to produce adequate incomes for millions of Yemenis. Deep well irrigation will have to be restricted to the remaining available water, and only where it does not deprive smallholders with shallow wells of the water needed for their own crops.

The policies needed for these principles to be realised are reasonably easy to design at central and basin/watershed level. Enforcement is where the difficulties arise: it must address competition between users, ensure equitable distribution between upstream and downstream users, manage the delicate and complex issue of rural-urban water transfers, and prevent the powerful from monopolising the limited water available. This is where good governance is essential to enforce prioritization of the needs of the majority over the minority and impose equitable principles on all. Ideally this should be done by negotiations and agreement but, if necessary, state force must be used. As leaders, solving the water crisis is an opportunity for you to demonstrate genuine commitment to the future of Yemen and the needs of its people and to prove wrong all those who believe that your ambitions are limited to personal power and gains. It is time for all of you to prioritize this issue or much of Yemen will be uninhabitable within  little more than a generation.

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