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Water Wars in Yemen

November 14, 2016

Water Wars in Yemen

image of Professor Rattan Lal
Professor Rattan Lal, Distinguished University Professor of Soil Science, School of Environmental and Natural Resources, and Director of the CFAES Dr. Rattan Lal Carbon Management and Sequestration Center (C-MASC).

By Natalie Hettle

Yemen’s water crisis is the worst in the Middle East. Yemen is located on a dry, semi-arid portion of the Arabian Peninsula. Yemen has no rivers unlike Syria, Egypt, Iraq and other Middle Eastern nations. The country relies completely on ground water and rain water [#1]. On average, Yemen gets 500 to 800 mm of rain each year in the high lands, 40 to 100 mm of rain in the coastal areas and 50 mm in the desert areas[#2]. The water shortage has gotten worse each year. In 1990, 71% of Yemenis had access to water. In 2004 this figure had decreased to 67%. Generally, urban areas have greater access to water than rural areas. However the decrease of water in urban areas has been more severe [#3]. Water availability in urban areas has gone from 84% in 1990 to 71% in 2004. In rural areas water availability went from 68% to 65% [#4]. Therefore, if this trend continues rural areas will eventually have greater access to water than the urban areas.

State-run water supplies reach a handful of families in the urban areas. However, the majority of Yemenis live in rural areas. In Sana’a , the capital of Yemen and an urban area, 40% of the houses are connected to pipes. In the rural areas, some women spend up to 5 hours of their day collecting water [#5]. About 50% of the population, which is 13 million Yemenis, struggle to find or buy enough clean water to drink or grow food [#6]. There are 14.7 million Yemenis dependent on humanitarian aid for access to water. Lack of access to fresh water is notorious for being the cause of malnutrition, morbidity, and mortality in rural areas. In a report done by the UN, it found that 14,000 Yemeni children under five are killed by malnutrition and diarrhea each year [#7].

Image of Mountain in Yemen, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Al Mawhit from our campsite, By Ai@ce (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Five Main causes of Yemen’s water crisis 

Many researchers agree that there are five main causes of Yemen’s water crises. They are as follows: high population growth, misguided agricultural development and policies, the use of water to grow qat, a lack of law enforcement to regulate water use, and a high vulnerability to climate change [#8]. 

Yemen currently has one of the highest population growth rates in the world, and with an increasing population there is an increasing need for water. Yemen’s population has nearly doubled since 1990[#9]. The population growth is heavily concentrated within urban areas, which is one of the reasons urban areas have been so severely affected by the water scarcity. It was estimated by the World Bank that Yemen’s population in the 1990s was at 12.3 million. The population today is at 23.1 million [#10].  Between 2006 to 2014 Yemen’s population grew by 25% which is an unprecedented population boom [#11]. There is no evidence that the population growth will slow any time soon. 

The second factor is ineffective agriculture and development policies. Yemen’s economy experienced a boom after many Yemenis left their country to work in neighboring countries such as Saudi Arabia. The workers abroad sent money back to their families in Yemen. The in-flow of money caused Yemen’s markets to grow rapidly [#12]. The growth of the markets resulted in the rapid growth of agricultural technology. Yemenis started moving away from their traditional farming practices and water conservation and started using chemical inputs, tractors and tube well practices. The government failed to develop policies to protect the scarce ground water [#13]. Rather, the government actually implemented policies that encouraged misuse of Yemen’s water. The government offered low-interest loans, cheap diesel pricing and public investment in surface or spate irrigation [#14]. Due to these policies and financial subsidies from the government, groundwater and irrigation were both cheap, which allowed the Yemenis to be wasteful with water. Also, there was a massive increase in farmland, between 1970 and 2004. During that period farmland increased by 1000% [#15]. 

The government began creating import and export bans on produce in order to further  stimulate their economy. The government placed a ban on importing fruit, vegetables, and coffee. This meant that Yemen’s farmers had to grow even more fruit and vegetables in order to feed their people [#16]. This resulted in more extraction and use of groundwater. The ban was only lifted in 2000 [#17]. However, because they are highly profitable, Yemeni farmers have continued to try to grow fruits and vegetables that are both water tensive crops.

The use of Qat has also exacerbated water crisis. More than 50% of all Yemen’s water is used to grow the narcotic drug [#18]. It is estimated that Qat is chewed by 80% of Yemen’s population[#19]. Qat is used to enhance communication, stay awake and ebb the feeling of hunger and fatigue. Most Yemeni men and women chew this narcotic drug[#20]. Due to the fact that the drug has similar affects as cocaine, it is highly addictive. Qat chewing is integrated into the culture of Yemen. Since so many Yemeni’s are addicted, demand is high and qat is a profitable crop to grow. The government has attempted to limit the amount of Qat grown but their attempts have been futile. The production and sale of Qat makes up to 60% of Yemen’s GDP[#21]. The crop also uses up to 90% of the nations groundwater[#22]

The fourth reason is the lack of law enforcement to enforce regulations regarding the use of water throughout the nation. Due to the lack of law enforcement the Yemeni government cannot prevent water from being wasted. As a result, wells are illegally being drilled throughout the country at an alarming rate[#23]. Poor infrastructure is also proving a problem for the Yemeni people. Almost 60 % of water is lost due to holes and leaks in the pipes[#24]. In conflict areas there are increasing problems with water availability. For example in as Ta’z the citizens have not received any water since the government was forced to leave.[#25]. The government’s departure led to an increase in arbitrary pumping of water, and now, in the area of Ta’z there are 1.6 million people who need emergency provisions of drinking water[#26]. 

The fifth reason for the scarcity of water is Yemen’s climate vulnerability. Reports from Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2008) predict that the Middle East and North Africa regions are going to get hotter and dryer[#27]. It is expected that climate change will cause coastal flooding, increase both the number and length of droughts experienced in the region and could potentially destroy agriculture[#28]. Some scientists have predicted that Yemen will get more rain fall due to global warming, but the high temperatures will cause the precipitation to evaporate rapidly[#29]. 

The Conflict in Yemen and it’s effects on Water 

The constant fighting in Yemen has only exasperated the water crisis. The war between the old government and the Houthi rebels has been worsening. The Saudi Arabian military has been bombing Yemen’s major cities in hopes to defeat the houthi rebels[#30]. Saudi Arabia continues to claim that the Houthi rebels are still a threat to Saudi Arabian security because they are being funded by Iran [#31]. The United Nations reports that since the war began the number of Yemeni’s who lack access to water has sky rocketed. As a result the citizens of Yemen have begun storing water in unsanitary conditions because many do not know when they will again have access to water. The improper storage of water has lead to a spike in Malaria, killing hundreds of citizens. The air raids have also damaged what little infrastructure there was in cities such as Aden and Sana’a [#32]. 

Since there are so many Yemenis in desperate need of water, many have turned to organizations like Al Qaida for supplies and relief. Al Qaida has been in Yemen for as long as the organization has existed, and it hols strongholds in the south. Since the conflict between the old government and the Houthi rebels started, they have grown in popularity[#33]. The group gives water to communities who have been largely ignored by humanitarian groups and the old government[#34]. They give the villagers water and show them how to build wells. This has significantly increased their popularity. 

Due the the sustained drought and ongoing conflict, fighting in Yemen over land and water has increased. Researchers believe that since the civil war 70-80 percent of all conflicts in Yemen are due to water[#35]. In Ta'z, Yemen’s third largest city, residents are only allowed to get water from the wells once every 45 days[#36]. Every year 4,000 people die due to violent disputes over water rights[#37]. Thus, the water crisis is only helping to destabilizing the country even more. Water scarcity threatens the lives of Yemen’s people by increasing the number of tribal disputes and violent conflicts between young unarmed men[#38]. 


Despite the problems, the situation is not hopeless and there are many solutions. Many agree that Yemen needs return to its practice of rain water harvesting and also introduce new forms of dams and systems of water purification[38]. Another suggestion is that Sana’a’s municipalities buy water from private land owners[#40]. However, Yemen would have to change its constitution to make this legal, which currently states that water cannot be owned[#41]. Others have suggestion that foreign aid be given that would allow Yemen to build desalinization plants. There are many solutions that can give the Yemeni’s hope for a better future. However, it is critical that something be done immediately for the preservation of water in Yemen, before it reaches catastrophic levels. The first step would be to end the war, so Yemen can once again have a government that can operate efficiently. Only time will tell if Yemen can still save itself.

[1] [2] [3] [4] [8 [9] [11] [12] [13] [15] [16] [17][18][19] [21] [22][23][26][27][35][38] https://www.americanuniversity.org/cas/economics/ejournal/upload/Global_Majority_e_Journal_1-1.pdf#page=1

[24][25] http://blogs.worldbank.org/arabvoices/yemen-so-critically-short-of-water

[10][14][20][28][39][40] [41]https://climateandsecurity.org/2016/08/03/a-storm-without-rain-yemen-water-climate-change-and-conflict/

[5][6][7] [23][34][36][37]]https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/apr/02/water-scarcity-yemen-conflict



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