Yemen’s political troubles are in the news right now. Houthi rebels from the north of the country ousted president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi (who was only elected after the Arab Spring uprisings in 2012) in February. A Saudi-led coalition began an aerial campaign at the end of March, and have pledged to continue the air strikes until they achieve their objective of rescuing Hadi’s government. But the headlines do not reveal the part that water plays in this crisis:13 million Yemenis – 50% of the population – struggle daily to find or buy enough clean water to drink or grow food. As a result 14.7 million Yemenis currently depend on humanitarian aid. As a hot country, Yemen has always experienced water troubles to some extent, but the problem has worsened due to an increasing population and poor water management; instead of collecting and storing rainwater, drilling for limited groundwater has become the norm. No one really knows how much is left. Various estimates predict that the capital Sana’a could run out of water within a decade or as soon as 2017.
Only a tiny proportion of Yemeni families are connected to the municipal supply. State-run water companies only supply some households in the major cities and 70% of Yemenis live in rural areas. Even in the capital Sana’a only 40% of the houses are connected – and they’re lucky if water comes out of their taps more than twice a week. The pipe network is old and an estimated 60% of water is lost through leaks. The situation is worse in the industrial city of Taiz, where water may come out of the tap only once a month. But the municipal supply is heavily subsidised and much cheaper than buying water from trucks, as everyone else does. “It’s generally recognised that it’s incredibly unfair, as it’s the fat cats with the nice villas who get hooked up, while the people living in informal settlements are left to buy water from tankers at 10 times the cost,” says Christopher Ward, author of The water crisis in Yemen: managing extreme water scarcity in the Middle East. “Connecting all households would cost an estimated £2bn and Yemen doesn’t have the money.”
The situation is even more miserable in rural areas, with some women spending four to five hours a day collecting water. “There are girls who never get an education because they spend all their days fetching water,” says Ward. “Lack of access to fresh water is notorious for being the biggest cause of malnutrition, morbidity, and mortality in rural areas.” Malnutrition and diarrhoea kill 14,000 Yemeni children under five each year, according to UN figures. Ghassan Madieh, Unicef’s former water sanitation and hygiene specialist in Yemen, says people are angry with the politicians and those controlling water resources. They blame the government for the lack of funding, poor governance, and its failure to provide adequate support for water projects. The tension and inequality between urban and rural water supply is compounded by the fact that water to supply urban areas in Yemen has in the past been taken from rural areas, often by force, and has sometimes led to armed conflict. A report in Al-Thawra, Yemen’s pro-government newspaper, estimated that 70-80% of conflicts in rural areas are about water, and the Yemeni ministry of the interior says that 4,000 die each year in violent disputes over land and water – although this is an old figure and likely an underestimate.
Yemen has thousands of years of experience with water conservation. But rainwater harvesting has taken a backseat to drilling and the use of modern pumps and tube wells, which draw too heavily on the finite groundwater supply, the biggest contributor to the current water crisis. The solution, says Ward, is a return to rainwater harvesting and to introduce new forms of dams and improved purification. The Sana’a municipality could also buy water from agricultural wells (who currently sell it to the private companies operating the water tankers). It would be more cost- efficient to pipe the water into town than to ship it in via tanker. But this would require changes to existing water laws as well as the Yemeni constitution, which says that water is a natural resource and cannot belong to anyone or be bought by the government. Other solutions are more costly, such as desalination, or more drastic. In 2007, Abdulrahman Al-Eryani, then Yemen’s minister for water and the environment, suggested relocating people from Sana’a to the Red Sea coast. He said: “I am not an optimist. I think many of the city’s people will simply have to move away,” before going on to suggest voluntary relocation. Unicef’s Madieh says a combination of solutions are needed. “In the coastal areas there are shallow wells, groundwater wells, and we should treat the water in those wells to make it drinkable and safe. In the mountains rainwater harvesting is an option.” One thing is certain: whoever wins out in the current political tussle will have a big job on their hands to sort out the water shortages, if and when they take office.
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