Yemen’s water crisis demands concerted action

Published on 24 June 2014 in Health & Environment
Murad Alazzany (author), Robert Sharp (author)

Murad Alazzany


Robert Sharp

Yemen is one of the most water scarce countries in the world, where consumption outstrips the rate of replenishment. (Archive photo)

Yemen is one of the most water scarce countries in the world, where consumption outstrips the rate of replenishment. (Archive photo)

Rapid population growth compounded by a flood of people relocating from villages to cities over the last four decades has resulted in rapidly increased demands for dwindling water supplies. Wasteful flood irrigation and qat production, as well as poor water management, means that Sana’a is set to be the world’s first capital to run out of water, and that could happen by 2040. What must be done?

Man and nature have contributed to the problem facing the country, which is located in a dry and semi-arid region of the Arabian Peninsula. Not only is annual rainfall low, and not efficiently harvested, but Yemen does not have the finances to develop and support the water desalination facilities used to bridge the same water demand-supply gap jointly experienced by richer neighboring Arab countries. For Yemen, it is reported that as much as 90 percent of water produced is used for small-scale farming at a time when agriculture, in the round, only contributes six percent to GDP. Regrettably, 50 percent of that available water for farming goes to the cultivation of qat, a mild narcotic plant chewed recreationally by most Yemeni men and many women. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, farmland acreage used for qat production has increased from 159,000 acres in 2011 to 162,000 in 2012. Add to the qat problem the random and unregulated sinking of wells, which further drains supplies, and it is clear that the situation appears to be getting out of control.

International and local reports suggest that water availability per capita is one of the lowest in the world. The World Bank in 1990 suggested that 71 percent of the Yemeni population had sufficient access to water, but this figure declined to 67 percent in 2004 while other countries' statistics were improving. Although the water situation is dire in some cities, it is most stressed in rural areas.

In Sana'a, residents usually receive public water once every nine days, while in Taiz they receive it every 45 days.

Some residents receive none and live on water they buy locally from wells outside cities. Villagers in some areas trek many kilometers along unpaved roads to reach working wells. One villager once described how two of his daughters had to walk to another village to fetch 40 liters of water from a well located far from their home.

He jokingly said that his daughters would drink half of the water on their trek back home.

In 1990, total water use in Yemen was 2,799 million cubic meters per year, and in 2010 it had increased to 3,970 million. A dry Yemen is a distinct possibility if nothing changes. A study by Qahtan Yehya Al-Asbahi reported that Yemen’s total renewable water resources amount to 2.5 billion cubic meters per year. Yemen cannot sustain the loss. As a result, compounded by climate change, ground water aquifers are declining from one to seven meters each year. It is therefore only a matter of time before the existing groundwater is all used up. Sana’a is likely to be the world’s first dry capital. In 1972 its water table was 30 meters below the surface, but today it has dropped to a staggering 1,200 meters below in some areas.

There were 180 wells ten years ago, but because they cannot be drilled deep enough there are only 80 today.  

Conflicts over water may become the norm in Yemen, although we argue that many Yemenis are not aware of the problem. If punitive and meaningful action is not taken soon, the consequences will be as long-term as they will be devastating. Yemen urgently needs policies and laws to govern its water and must also adopt regional best practice water management lessons. We advise President Hadi to take immediate action and to establish as a national priority a crisis committee with representation from various government ministries under senior National Security chairmanship.

The committee must be empowered to seek international advice and funding to quickly direct policies, strategies, advice, activities and laws to start a sea change for Yemen’s water management.

We suggest the immediate consideration of modern water technologies, including trials of drip irrigation for qat, more efficient rainwater harvesting, water meters, and domestic advice to all concerned households about water conservation measures including half-flush toilet technologies and the effective re-use of waste water. Equally important is the urgent need for a public outreach campaign to make people aware of the problem so they may begin their own water management, maybe supplemented by rewards and grants for innovation. Concurrently, Yemen should approach richer Gulf Cooperation Council countries for aid to support water desalination projects. If Yemen does not act quickly, there will come a time when Sana’a initially, and then the whole country, could run dry.

Murad Alazzany is an associate professor at Sana’a University, Yemen.  Robert Sharp is an associate professor at the US National Defense University, Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies (NESA), Washington DC, USA.