By Austin Bodetti
The Yemeni Civil War has led to tens of thousands of deaths, but the international community is just starting to appreciate the gravity of a humanitarian crisis that has preoccupied Yemeni policymakers for years: water scarcity. As Iranian-backed Houthi rebels battle Emirati- and Saudi-trained militias across Yemen, the country’s already-strained water-supply networks are running dry. The ongoing gridlock on the battlefield has obscured a reality that should concern all Yemenis: the longer the conflict persists, the greater the danger that desertification, drought, and famine will damage Yemen beyond repair.
In 2013, two years before the Yemeni Civil War began in earnest, some experts predictedthat the Yemeni capital of Sana’a would lose its water supply within 10 years. Since then, a deadly combination of climate change and political violence has aggravated water scarcity in the country.
“Yemen is considered the most water-poor country in the world,” claims Abdoul Razaz Saleh, a former Yemeni water and environment minister. “It is one of the countries with no rivers, and rainfall has decreased significantly over the last three decades. Many Yemeni cities and villages suffer from water scarcity—especially in the winter. These days, Taiz is practically without water.”
Besieged by the Houthis since 2016, the Yemeni city of Taiz has struggled with water scarcity for decades. The World Bank noted the “dire and worsening water situation” there as far back as 2000. The siege has inflamed this problem, forcing Taiz’s residents to buy water on the black market.
Elsewhere in Yemen, droughts have undercut agriculture, which employed just under half of Yemenis in 2018. The cultivation of water-intensive crops such as khat, a narcotic popular throughout the country, has only made matters worse. The aid agency Mercy Corps has predicted that Yemen could find itself “on the brink of famine” in no time.
“Agriculture—namely crops such as khat, fruit, and vegetables—consumes the lion’s share of the available water in Yemen, about 90 percent,” says Tawfeeq al-Sharjabi, the Yemeni deputy water and environment minister. “For their part, only 55 percent of Yemeni households have access to safe drinking water, and this number shrinks to 35 percent in rural areas. Most of the wells drilled for agricultural purposes are illegal, but the Yemeni government’s ability to enforce these rules is weak.”
The Yemeni government controls neither Sana’a nor much of Yemen’s north and west, where the majority of the country’s population lives. Meanwhile, militias loyal to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have eroded the rule of law in the few cities where Yemeni officials do have a presence.
Dedicated Yemeni civil servants have long worked to overcome these obstacles, trying to develop a plan for mitigating the dangers of water scarcity in the Arabian Peninsula’s poorest country.
“The Yemeni government has been working on water resource management since the 1990s,” notes al-Sharjabi. “For its part, the Yemeni Water and Environment Ministry was established in 2003 as an expression of the Yemeni government’s high level of interest in problems related to water. Subsequent reforms improved the size and type of water supply networks in rural and urban areas alike.”
Political violence has slowed the Yemeni Water and Environment Ministry’s ability to deal with the humanitarian crisis as both parties to the conflict weaponize access to water.
You can read the full opinion article at Lobe Log here.