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Will Yemen run out of water?

Children in Sana’a, Yemen, clutching bottles of water Children in Sana’a, Yemen, clutching bottles of water Oleg Znamenskiy
02 Feb
If reports are to be believed, Sana’a, and other cities in Yemen, will soon be the first in the world to run out of water. Can this crisis be averted?

The warnings have been dire, and they have been coming for years. A 2009 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report entitled Yemen: avoiding a downward spiral made the following statement: ‘Sana’a [the Yemeni capital] whose population is growing at seven per cent a year as a result of increased urbanisation, may become the first capital city in the world to run out of water.’

‘The first capital city in the world to run out of water’ has become an unwanted tagline for Sana’a, as the city – and indeed the entire country – continues to struggle with severe water scarcity. The World Health Organization (WHO) recognises a global ‘water poverty line’ of 1,000m3 per capita per year, and yet in 2009 the World Bank estimated that Yemen had only 120m3 of water available per person each year, one of the lowest figures in the world. This water scarcity is believed to be a key reason behind as much as 70 to 80 per cent of the country’s violence, according to a study by Sana’a University researchers.

In Sana’a, as with most of Yemen’s cities, water is predominantly sourced from underground aquifers, however the country’s water table is falling on average by around two metres each year. The concern among experts is how strikingly unsustainable this water source is, hence the predictions concerning wells running dry. Semi arid Sana’a receives an average of 265mm of rainfall per year. While this is low at the global level, for the region it isn’t exceptionally low, and in fact is significantly more than the 92mm which falls annually on Muscat, capital of Yemen’s neighbour Oman. Therefore, some people argue that Yemen’s water problems are a result of mismanagement, rather than being entirely due to a lack of water resources.

‘Yemen thirst is caused mainly by institutional scarcity, not the physical scarcity of water,’ Dr. Omar Ahmed Bamaga, Associate Professor at the Center of Excellence in Desalination Technology at King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia, tells Geographical. ‘There is a lack of a political will and a determination to take correcting measures to mitigate water problems. Other countries, such as Jordan, whose water per capita is lower than Yemen, are managing their water resources better. Bad management and a weak rule of law are responsible for a great deal of water problems in Yemen.’

yemen3Semi arid rural landscape near Sana'a, Yemen. Image: JM Travel Photography

It is the reality of this situation which leads Dr. Bamaga to believe that the future is nothing like as bleak for Yemen and Sana’a as many have prophesied. ‘I think Yemen still has a pretty a good chance to avert water crises,’ he says, ‘mainly because it has a few options and alternatives that have not been utilised yet.’

One of these options involves rainwater harvesting; augmenting waters supplies by encouraging small scale harvesting of Yemen’s rainfall. Another involves moving people instead of water; relocating some of Yemen’s population from the westerly concentration of settlements, either to parts of the country where potential new aquifers have been discovered, or to new cities equipped with desalination plants along the 2,000km coastline.

However, one of the key issues is agriculture, which demands the vast majority of all water used in Yemen. ‘Out of the total annual water use in Sana’a basin, which was estimated at 270mm3 in 2005, only 55mm3 was used for domestic water supply,’ says Dr. Bamaga. ‘On the national level, the estimates indicate that agriculture uses about 93 per cent of water withdrawals. Yet, the water use efficiency in agriculture is far below the optimum. Huge water savings can be accomplished if water use efficiency is improved. Yemen needs to promote more ‘crop per drop’ research and policy.’

One of the crops which receives the most criticism is qat, a plant whose mildly narcotic leaves are extremely popular for chewing amongst people living on the Arabian peninsula. Up to 90 per cent of Yemeni men are believed to chew qat for at least three to four hours each day. Aside from the health concerns regarding the increasing consumption of qat (a WHO medical report found ‘the main toxic effects include increased blood pressure, tachycardia, insomnia, anorexia, constipation, general malaise, irritability, migraine and impaired sexual potency in men’), the shrub which grows qat leaves is also more water-intensive than many other crops. Additionally, with qat’s rising popularity, many Yemeni farmers began growing qat instead of food stables such as vegetables, causing local food prices to rise. Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city, was historically known for it’s coffee production. This has now diminished as agriculture has shifted towards the more lucrative qat.

yemen2A man sells qat in a Yemen market. Image: Dmitry Chulov

Another significant cause of the water crisis is the prevalence of unlicensed and unregulated wells across the country. These wells make it extremely hard for authorities to monitor and attempt to control water consumption, and also lead to high levels of water wastage from poor quality equipment and piping. A report published by the Middle East Research and Information Project estimates between 45,000 and 70,000 private wells in Yemen, but includes the caveat that due to all almost all of these wells having been built illegally, it is impossible to know for sure the accurate number.

Therefore, with better regulation and management of both the underground water supply system and the use of high volumes of water for agriculture – especially qat crops – it is possible to follow Dr. Bamaga’s logic that Yemen’s problems may not be as severe as they have been presented.

However, others are less convinced that any of these measures will prevent Yemeni cities from running dry. Taha Al Washali, PhD Fellow at UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education, and Director General of the Projects Department at Yemen’s National Water and Sanitation Authority, is quite clear when asked if he thinks there is still time to find a working solution to the country’s water crisis. ‘The answer is no,’ he tells Geographical. ‘Taiz already faces a severe shortage of water, and customers get water once every sixty days! However, the private sector, represented by water tankers, does the job and acts as a supplementary supply bringing water from deep wells very far away. In fact, it has become the main supplier for 50 per cent of the capital, and the main supplier in Taiz and all the cities with a short supply of water. The poor suffer from such an option, as they have to take loans for bad credit to pay for very expensive water tankers.’

Will new policies be able to modernise and revolutionise Yemen’s water supply infrastructure? Or is it already too late to prevent Sana’a and Yemen’s other cities from completely running out of water? While harvesting rainwater and other initiatives could potentially make a significant impact on Yemen’s water stores, no such policies are currently being publicly discussed by the Yemeni authorities, and yet, it is conversations such as these which appear likely to determine whether or not this crisis can be averted.

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