Yemen's Looming Water Crisis

Opinion Articles


For all that is said about water scarcity, the term is somewhat misused. Oftentimes, water becomes more difficult to access or becomes more expensive; on a countrywide scale, it remains available in most cases. But some countries are actually running out of water. Yemen is one such country.

A strong central government can find solutions and adapt to slow the decline of resources. But because Yemen's weak central government cannot ensure domestic stability, the country shows little potential of being able to resolve or even mitigate its water scarcity problems in the near term, leading hydrologists to predict that it could run out of water within the decade. While there are several countries that withdraw more water than is available, their situations are not yet as dire as Yemen's. Still, Sanaa can serve as a benchmark in assessing other countries in the region where changes in water management policies will be vital to watch.


Throughout antiquity and even in recent history, Yemen was a paragon of water engineering. Evidenced by the Great Dam of Marib, one of the engineering marvels of the ancient world, the Yemeni populations historically have employed advanced irrigation and water management techniques effectively. Unlike those of its regional neighbors, Yemen's water supply is all internal; Sanaa does not depend on neighboring countries for access to its water resources.

Yemen's Water Crisis

But that is where the good news ends. Yemen currently finds itself under extreme water scarcity, which is defined as less than 500 cubic meters of water per person per year. Yemen's population currently lives on only 88 cubic meters of water per person per year. The resource has always been precious in the region, but it is only since the second half of the 20th century that population growth and shifts in usage began what would become a sharp decline in available water. Beginning in the 1970s, agricultural expansion demanded more groundwater for irrigation. When the country began producing oil in the 1980s, increased revenue created a cash economy, which contributed to the increased use of qat, a popular narcotic. Compounded by a yearly population growth that nearly reached 3 percent in 2001 before falling slightly to the current growth rate of 2.3 percent, Yemen's meager water supplies have been severely exploited. Although the looming crisis was recognized as early as the 1980s, the country continues on a path of unsustainable water management practices.

Groundwater resources — water deposits located underground in aquifers — make up about 70 percent of Yemen's water supply, providing much of the country's available 2.1 billion cubic meters of renewable water resources a year. The country, however, withdraws some 3.4 billion cubic meters per year, creating a significant deficit in the water table. When factoring in other problems such as saltwater intrusion and pollution, experts estimate that large portions of Yemen, including the capital of Sanaa, could physically run out of water within the next decade if nothing is done.

Groundwater resources remain Yemen's most important source of water and are recharged by the irregular surface flows of wadis — watercourses that stay dry except during periods of higher rainfall. Groundwater resources are distributed throughout the country, and the majority of aquifers are considered overexploited. Yemen is currently divided between a number of militant groups and water is a key resource to secure to have leverage over the central government. Because of the overexploited status of most aquifers, when al-Houthi militants recently made territorial gains, the group's new water resources did not significantly alter the balance of resource control. Fighters from the secessionist Southern Movement control sections of territory along the southern coast, where aquifers are not technically overexploited as a whole. Several of these aquifers, however, are experiencing salt-water intrusion, which has decreased the quality of the available water. Much of the large Mukalla aquifer complex is located in Hadramawt, where al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has a strong presence. This aquifer is technically overexploited, but its vast estimated reserves make it a potential source for non-renewable water when the other sources run out. This could provide the militant group with some leverage in the future, although transporting the water to more densely populated regions would be extremely expensive.


Economic Implications

Much of Yemen's arable land is concentrated in the highland regions along the mountain plains, an area that receives a high amount of rainfall. Much of the country's population is concentrated in this area as well, which is one of the reasons that water is running out. Irrigated acres increased more than ten times over a 35-year period beginning in 1970 and the use of groundwater in agriculture became increasingly important. The agricultural sector is Yemen's main consumer of water, accounting for 90 percent of all withdrawals. Although it employs nearly half the population, it only contributes roughly 10 percent of Sanaa's gross domestic product and Yemen remains highly dependent on food imports to support a rapidly growing population. A major cause for the agricultural sector's overuse of water is qat, a water-intensive narcotic cash crop that uses nearly 20 percent of total irrigated agricultural acreage. Some studies estimate that half of all of Yemen's water consumption is used to cultivate qat.

As Yemen's population continues to grow, municipal demand for water will also increase. In order to satisfy this demand, additional resources will have to be taken from another sector's share. Water supplies will also continue to be lost due to dilapidated infrastructure and inefficient irrigation systems. As Yemen continues to combat a growing population amid ongoing political and social unrest, the economic impact of failing to address water management issues will become more evident. The United Nations Development Program estimates that roughly 1.5 percent of Yemen's GDP is lost to groundwater depletion and another 2.4 percent is lost by the country's failure to address water sanitation issues.

Yemen's water problems also constrain industrial growth, particularly in the oil and natural gas sectors. Industry accounts for only some 2 percent of Yemen's water consumption, but water is still a vital component of energy extraction. Yemen's oil production, however, has been in decline since 2001, falling to 133,000 barrels per day in 2013 because fields have matured and the security situation has deteriorated. While commercial production of natural gas began in 2009, the country will continue to struggle to maintain the hydrocarbons industry, on which it relies heavily to support its economy, supplying roughly three-quarters of government revenue.

Potential Solutions

While Yemen's water problems continue to plague the country and will likely continue to worsen, it would cost an estimated $12.7 billion to make the necessary improvements. Updating infrastructure is among the most important measures the country could take to ensure the supply of water to the growing population. Because so much of the water supply comes from the ground, the government must improve its management and control over the number of wells drilled. This would be a monumental task, given that less than 10 percent of well drilling rigs are licensed and less than 2 percent of wells are registered. The sheer number of illegal wells and the weakness of central government authority currently make the management of groundwater resources impossible.

Embracing water conservation efforts and implementing alternative methods of procuring potable water such as desalination could also be short- and medium-term solutions to Yemen's water troubles. But the expenses put such strategies beyond Yemen's reach. In theory, countries such as Saudi Arabia could provide funding for desalination projects. While this would help provide water for coastal populations, inland cities such as Sanaa would have to pump the desalinated water over long distances, a method that would be very costly while creating an attractive target for those who want to threaten Yemen's security.

Political Limitations

Given Yemen's instability, however, all these solutions remain unlikely. Implementing strong water management policies and ensuring continued maintenance require a strong central government and a stable security situation — and Sanaa has neither. With the rise of the al-Houthi militants and the current unrest and political uncertainty in the capital, the administration of President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi would not be able to implement anything of consequence. In fact, the central government is currently unable to exert its will beyond the capital.

A prime example of the government's weakness is its recent failed attempt to cut diesel fuel subsidies. The initiative helped trigger an uprising by the al-Houthi tribe that risked toppling the fragile government. The move itself could have had a significant impact on the water situation; diesel pumps are widely used when extracting groundwater. Cutting the government subsidies would have disincentivized unchecked groundwater extraction. But because Sanaa was forced to roll back subsidy cuts after the al-Houthi uprising, along with similar demands from other factions, any potential reduction of groundwater use was also minimized.

It is unlikely that Yemen's political situation will change in the near future; security issues will continue to plague the country. Therefore, the onus for change will fall to the local governments, which are often corrupt, inefficient and poorly funded. Without the ability to implement the necessary water management methods, the water situation in Yemen will likely remain dire, contributing to the potential for further unrest and putting more pressure on Saudi Arabia to contain its southern neighbor.

Other Countries at Risk

Notably, other countries in the region share Yemen's plight. Jordan, Egypt and parts of the Palestinian Territories all withdraw as much or more water per year than is available on a renewable basis. Egypt will face uncertainty regarding the availability of water supplies from the Nile, especially as the Grand Ethiopian Dam progresses. Jordan, on the other hand, will likely have to rely on the help of Israel to implement necessary alternative resources. The Palestinian Territories will also face the challenge of sharing water resources with a hostile neighbor in Israel.

Prolonged instability in any of these nations would limit their government's ability to implement any kind of water management strategy in the future. Weak governments with little control over the population could have similar effects. Failure to implement water management practices in the short term will have long-term implications for water availability. Yemen is the first case, but it remains to be seen if other countries in the region under similar stresses are able to avoid the same fate.


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