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Options drying up for water-depleted Yemen 

Published online 15 August 2015

As conflict rages in Yemen, the country faces severe water shortage.

Sophie Cousins

© Alen Penton / Alamy
More than 20 million Yemenis – 80 per cent of the country’s population – are struggling to get access to clean water as conflict in the country continues. 

Water experts warn of catastrophic public health effects, especially in rural areas, if the shortages are not addressed. 

Water is distributed in the countryside via piped schemes that are heavily dependent on pumped groundwater. Such extraction requires access to fuel, which is in short supply, and as the water table is depleted, becomes ever more costly

Even before the conflict, which began in March, Yemen had long experienced water shortages due to the rapid growth of the market economy and government support for development and extraction of groundwater, says British Yemen water expert Christopher Ward, a research fellow at the University of Exeter 

Ward, the author of The Water Crisis in Yemen: Managing Extreme Water Scarcity in the Middle East, says established water governance and institutions were inadequate to moderate the rate of extraction and imbalances in Yemen's political economy led to inequity of access to the precious resource. 

“In the absence of governance, all the incentives were for a 'race to the bottom' in a variant of the 'tragedy of the commons’ - pumping out the water before your neighbour did” Ward says.

However, as the conflict between Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition continues, aid agencies have described the humanitarian crisis in Yemen as “catastrophic”. 

Mohboob Ahmed Bajwa, head of WASH at UNICEF Yemen, speaking from Sana’a, says the risk of disease outbreak in the countryside is evident. 

“Without access to improved water supply, there are regular bouts of diarrhoea, particularly among young children, which will eventually have an impact on their nutritional conditions.” 

WHO representative in Yemen, Ahmed Shadoul says the number of cases of blood diarrhoea among children under five has doubled and there is an increase in other diseases such as malaria. 

A new report on Yemen by Oxfam International said 6.5 million people, as of late July, were on the brink of starvation. Since March, 25,000 people have slipped into hunger every day after Saudi Arabia imposed a naval blockade on Yemeni ports, preventing food, water, fuel and other vital aid from entering the country. 

Prior to the crisis, only 50 percent of urban residents had access to safe water and about one-third of rural Yemenis had access to clean water within 500 metres of their home, Ward says. 

Fuel shortages have driven up black market prices by 500 percent, says water expert Anwer Sahooly, who until recently assisted the Yemeni Minister of Water and Environment in the development of the Water Sector Policy and Strategy. 

“Water companies could not afford to buy fuel at this price, particularly [given] consumers were not able to pay their water bills due to the very high inflation,” he said. 

“Poor people send their children to mosques and some charities to fetch water by jerry cans, which are too heavy to carry. Rich people buy tankered water from the private sector 1000 percent higher than the price of the public water companies.” 

Sahooly says irrigation in the country is very inefficient due to government incentives for farmers such as fuel subsidies and low electric power tariff – that were in place prior to the crisis. He says such incentives encourage farmers to shift from rain fed irrigation to irrigation using deep wells. 

Bajwa from UNICEF warns that “Yemen will out of water if relentless mining of water is not stopped or reduced by the agriculture sector”. 

“Currently we are extracting water from aquifers three times more than the replenishment. If considerable strong administrative decisions are not taken to conserve water, Yemeni people will be displaced in a large number,” he adds. 

Ward says that Yemen must move to a less water-intensive economy if it had any chance of recovering and urges local action. “There are many examples of local people taking control of the water resource and reviving traditional patterns of cooperation,” he says. 

However, in many areas it is too late and the groundwater is running out or has disappeared.

“The result will be the shrinking of the rural economy, rural-urban migration, rural/urban conflict over water, and a big increase in urban water costs.” 

Asked if the situation was reversible, an advisor in Yemen’s presidential office for water and environment, Abdulrahman al-Eryani says he does not know. “It probably depends on how long the war will continue and what interventions the government will take.”