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Yemen's Water Crisis Eclipses al Qaeda Threat

Ulf Laessing

A boy fills a container with water from a public tap in Sanaa in this picture taken February 3, 2010. More water is consumed than produced from most of Yemen's 21 aquifers, especially in the highlands, home to big cities like Sanaa, with a fast-growing population of two million, and Taiz. Picture taken February 3, 2010.(REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah)

SANAA -- Yemeni
water trader Mohammed al-Tawwa runs his diesel pumps day and night, but
gets less and less from his well in Sanaa, which experts say could
become the world's first capital city to run dry.

well is now 400 meters (1,300 feet) deep and I don't think I can drill
any deeper here," said Tawwa, pointing to the meager flow into tanks
that supply water trucks and companies.

From dawn, dozens of people with yellow jerricans collect water from a special canister Tawwa has set aside for the poor.

we don't have any water for a whole week, sometimes for two days and
then it stops again," said Talal al-Bahr, who comes almost daily to
supply his family of six.

The West
frets that al Qaeda will exploit instability in Yemen to prepare new
attacks like the failed December 25 bombing of a U.S. airliner, but
this impoverished Arabian peninsula country faces a catastrophe that
poses a far deadlier long-term threat.

Nature cannot recharge ground water to keep pace with demand from a population of 23 million expected to double in 20 years.

water is consumed than produced from most of Yemen's 21 aquifers,
especially in the highlands, home to big cities like Sanaa, with a
fast-growing population of two million, and Taiz.

we continue like this, Sanaa will be a ghost city in 20 years," said
Anwer Sahooly, a water expert at German development agency GTZ, which
runs several water projects in Yemen.

wells in Sanaa are now 800 to 1,000 meters deep -- requiring
oil-drilling equipment -- while many are no longer usable because of
the sinking water table, he said.

of thirsty Yemenis may eventually have to abandon Sanaa and other
mountain cities for the coastal plain. "Water refugees" may try to
migrate to nearby Gulf states or Europe.

say fights over water use have erupted in some tribal areas. Several
orange orchards have run dry in Saada, a northern province already
racked by a conflict with rebels who agreed a fragile ceasefire with
the government last week.

"From a
Yemeni perspective, al Qaeda is a smaller problem than water. What do
you do if big cities have no water? Who would want to commit any
investment here?" asked one diplomat.


crisis is worsened by excessive irrigation by farmers growing qat, a
mild narcotic leaf that dominates life in Yemen, where most men spend
half the day chewing it, even at work.

Agriculture accounts for more than 90 percent of water use, of which 37 percent goes to irrigate qat, GTZ estimates.

Qat also eats into family budgets, aggravating poverty and leading to under-nutrition of children and others, experts say.

is the culprit," said Sahooly, at the Sanaa water authority office
where he works as an adviser. "It is a dangerous crop that will lead us
to disaster."

Government policies
are also to blame. Diesel subsidies, due to cost the state $2 billion
this year, indirectly encourage qat farmers, or well-owners like Tawwa,
to pump more water.

Yemen has
overhauled water use regulations, but Sahooly said this would be
ineffective unless President Ali Abdullah Saleh enforces restrictions
on wildcat drilling and qat cultivation.

contrasted Yemen's plight with neighboring Oman, whose government has
made water conservation a top priority. No new well can be drilled
there without the sultan's approval.

absence of local utilities to manage water resources has sharpened
grievances in remoter areas of Yemen, says Christopher Boucek of the
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

failure to establish local water corporations in several governorates
that historically have not received much support or social services
from the central government has raised fear that a resurgent al Qaeda
may seek refuge there," he argued in written testimony to the U.S.
Congress this month.

Yemen should
import qat from East Africa and spur farmers to produce cereals to cut
water consumption and dependence on food imports, both Carnegie and GTZ
recommend to the government.

Yet at Sanaa's bustling qat market, merchants shrug off talk of the unfolding water disaster.

true that qat uses much of our water but Yemen cannot live without
qat," said Heniar al-Qaidasi, handing bags of qat to customers to
sample at the peak lunchtime sales period.

"It's the biggest employer of farmers and traders. Where would the jobs come from if qat production were stopped?"

Qat farmer Fathi Ali Dhaghan, arriving with his latest crop for Sanaa traders, agreed.

"We depend on qat. Without it, Yemen is impossible. God will help us find new water."

Editing by Alistair Lyon

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