Can Water Scarcity Bring Down a Government? Yemen Spirals Out of Control

by |June 8, 2011

According to The New York Times, Yemen, a nation of 24 million people that sits at the southern and southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, is “on the brink of an economic collapse so dire it could take years to recover,” and is suffering from shortages of energy, food and most crucially, water.

People carry containers to collect water from a public tap in Yemen. Source:

The crisis follows four months of political turmoil that began as part of the region-wide “Arab spring” protest that brought down the Egyptian government and catapulted Libya into civil war. Government troops are now fighting with opposition forces in the capital, Sana; in the latest developments, the nation’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was wounded in a rebel raid and had to be evacuated to Saudi Arabia.

As with many nations in the region, Yemen suffers a long-term water crisis that is now manifesting itself in the form of acute water shortages—shortages that have spiraled into a full-blown crisis amidst political and economic disruption. According to the Times, the price of water has risen five to tenfold in the country since January. Now, as diesel supplies used to pump water from underground aquifers become scarce, experts worry that Sana could be the first capital ever to run out of water.

Even before the current crisis, Yemen was considered one of the world’s most water-stressed countries, with public water access available to only half of the urban population and some 40 percent of rural dwellers, according to the Lancet. According to the World Bank and others, lack of water access and poverty are closely linked in this nation. A 2009 study by researchers from Sana’a University suggested that 70-80 percent of rural conflicts in the nation were related to water.

All of this brings to mind a harsh, foreboding desert landscape that in the pre-industrial era would have at best supported a smattering of nomadic tribes. But such a picture would be highly misleading—more characteristic of neighboring Saudi Arabia than Yemen. In fact, Yemen has one of the oldest civilizations in the world, beginning in 900 B.C. and supported by good soil and adequate, if not heavy rainfall. In fact, its landform covers a wide diversity of climates, from low tropical to semi-arid, to mountainous.

The Middle East Information Project describes Yemen as “one of the oldest irrigation civilizations in the world,” in which “farmers have practiced sustainable agriculture using available water and land” for millennia. “Through a myriad of mountain terraces, elaborate water harvesting techniques and community-managed flood and spring irrigation systems, the country has been able to support a relatively large population. Until recently, that is.”

Shibam,Yemen has some of the oldest high-rises in the world. Source: kurvenalben via photopedia.

So what happened? According to MERP, everything began to come apart in the 1970s with the introduction of deep tubewells along with fuel and agricultural subsidies that led to a massive expansion of cultivated land, from 37 to 407 thousand hectares. Farmers also began growing fewer drought-resistant crops and more water-intensive crops such as citrus and banana. Last but not least, the new situation led to a dramatic growth in the cultivation of qat, a leaf chewed as a stimulant that is a major part of Yemeni culture. By some estimates, qat is responsible for some 37 percent of all water used for irrigation.

So is sustainable water use possible today? A complicating factor is Yemen’s huge population surge—population has more than doubled there since 1975 and grown approximately 35 percent since 1994, a trend that likely cannot continue for long. Another confounding circumstance is Yemen’s rapidly depleting oil supplies, which some experts say will be all but gone by 2014. Lack of energy and revenue will make reconfiguring the nation’s water supply much more difficult.

A displaced boy drinks water at a camp. Source: IRIN News.

On the other hand, options exist. Policy changes to reduce the production of qat at the expense of other foods would be a start, along with other cropping changes. Other interventions include rainwater harvesting—in 2008 Yemen’s ministry of Ministry of Water and Environment (MWE) drafted a plan to implement simple, small-scale harvesting techniques to capture rainwater. The plan was to capture 70 percent of rainwater falling on Sana by 2012 and 100 percent by 2020, along with significant harvesting in other areas.

Of course, making such policy changes is difficult in an atmosphere of political uncertainty. But the simple fact that possibilities for more sustainable water use exist—even in one of the most water-stressed nations in the world—offers hope that should transcends national borders.

Columbia Water Center demonstrates research-based solutions to global freshwater scarcity and climate-related water risks.  Follow Columbia Water Center on Facebook and Twitter

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