Yemen’s Water Crisis

Summary: in the midst of a terrible war, Yemen is stalked by another enemy, one that Yemenis know far too much about and the world far too little.

We thank Helen Lackner for today’s article. She has worked in Yemen since the 1970s and lived there for nearly 15 years, and writes about the country’s political, social and economic issues. Helen works as a freelance rural development consultant. Her book “Yemen in Crisis: the Road to War”, published by Verso in 2019, is a seminal study of the current war and what lies behind it. Her most recent Arab Digest podcast on the Yemen situation is available here.

Reading about the war and possible negotiations, the rise of the Houthis, the weakness of the Hadi government and more, may allow people to forget that Yemen and Yemenis have to address a fundamental long-term problem which threatens the country’s very survival: its water crisis which is the most visible manifestation of environmental problems, including climate change. Certainly this is currently neglected by politicians and warlords focused on personal benefit and power games. Yemenis living in the country, by contrast, do not have the leisure to ignore it, but they focus on finding enough domestic water for basic daily survival, rather than on the long-term sustainability features of the issue.

Unless addressed, the water crisis will make life impossible in Yemen within a generation (photo credit @muslimhandsuk)

Objectively Yemen’s water scarcity is absolute: per capita renewable water has dropped to 75m3 in 2017, barely more than one percent of the global average. Nationally, even before the war one third more water was used annually than replenished, extracting 3.5 billion m3 while only 2.1 billion m3 were replaced, the 1.4 billion m3 shortfall coming from water pumped from deep fossil non-renewable aquifers. The 70% of the population living in rural areas get their water from their immediate local sources, including springs, wells, spate flows and irrigation pumps; much of this is still collected and carried on their heads by women and children over long distances, and usually up steep mountains, but also with the help of donkeys. Some communities have piped supplies to the village, but these are rarely accompanied by the essential sanitation structures. This encourages the spreading of stagnant pools of waste water which are perfect mosquito breeding grounds, and bear considerable responsibility for the increase in malaria, dengue and other vector transported diseases.

Most urban areas have piped networks though they rarely supply the majority of the households and sewerage systems are either absent of malfunctioning. In both Sana’a and Taiz about 40% of households are connected to the network but the major difference is that (pre-war) Sana’a residents received water about twice a week, whereas those of Taiz did so about once every 40 days! The rest of the time for these households and all the time for the majority households, supplies by private tankers are the only source; when they can afford it, people rely on separate purchase of purified water for drinking and cooking.

The war, and particularly coalition air strikes have seriously damaged urban piped systems for both water and sanitation. Water has also become more expensive due to the increase in fuel costs [necessary for extracting water from the wells and running tankers], though solar power is sometimes alleviating the problem and cost. So tanker supplies, including from humanitarian funding, have become once more very important and ubiquitous throughout the country. However, inadequate  tanker cleaning and the transfer of water to unclean jerry cans is also increasing the levels of pollution of domestic water.

Why does Yemen suffer such severe water scarcity?  There are primarily three causes: rapid population growth (still close to 3% per annum) has increased demand and thus reduced per capita availability. The rapid expansion of diesel and electricity operated pumps and tube well technology have enabled farmers to reach deeper aquifers and use more water than is replenished, thus extending irrigated areas and increasing the cultivation of high value crops needing more water; more recently, with the war, large powerful landholders have introduced solar operated pumps, which means that the reduced availability of diesel has not helped preserve the water sources. Agricultural use is extremely relevant overall as 90% of Yemen’s water is used in agriculture. Finally climate change has transformed rainfall patterns thus reducing the total amount of water available, as downpours are more violent and water retention and absorption is reduced due to the collapse of terraces, the washing away of wadi banks and erosion of top soils through wind and other events.

During the Saleh regime, water management was characterised, like other aspects of policy, by his prioritisation of short-term political support from a small group of beneficiaries of his rule (including senior highland tribal leaders irrigating qat and grapes). This coincided with international financial aid institutions strategy encouraging heavy drinker export crops like bananas and mangoes in the coastal plains. Both involved the expansion of powerful pumps on deep wells either in fossil or other aquifers and were not effectively mitigated by the introduction of ‘improved irrigation’ projects. They systematically deprived smallholders with shallow wells of water through the lowering of water tables, thus worsening poverty. During the post-Saleh transition [2012-2014], politicians ignored this long-term fundamental problem and have continued to do so during the war.

Following decades of inaction and creation of powerless institutions, in 2002 the Water Law was enacted. The Ministry of Water and Environment was established in 2003, but made toothless within weeks when irrigation was removed from its mandate and returned to the authority of the Ministry of Agricultural and Irrigation. Regulations and enforcement of drilling controls were ineffective, and the over-exploitation of water continued apace, regardless of the war situation.

Unless addressed, the water crisis will make life impossible in Yemen within a generation, and the country’s population is expected to reach 50 million by 2040. Therefore, the first priority is to address the shortage of domestic water availability. This can be easily achieved through a shift of some water from agricultural to domestic use. Unless this is done, and enforced in an equitable manner, taking into consideration the water/population balance at the water basin or aquifer level, millions of Yemenis will become forced migrants simply due to the lack of water in their home areas.  Initially [and this is already happening] people will move from villages which have run out of water to neighbouring areas or other parts of the country where water is still available. This will increase pressure on the water and other resources in these areas and worsen social tension between long-settled inhabitants and new arrivals.

Over time, and as the situation deteriorates further, people will be forced out of Yemen towards Saudi Arabia and Oman, whose rulers and populations are, to say the least, unenthusiastic at the prospect of the arrival of thousands, even millions of desperate Yemenis. Other than human solidarity, this alone should be a good reason why the GCC states should help Yemenis end the war and establish effective governance institutions.

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