Even before Yemen found itself engulfed in its ongoing civil war, the country was battling another crisis—severe water scarcity. This resource shortage is a contributing factor to the country’s violence, yet little domestic and international attention is paid to the issue. Unless the underlying causes of the country’s water deficit are addressed, the current conflict will be more difficult to end.
As the conflict in Yemen moves into its sixth year, there’s an ever greater need to tackle the growing water crisis, which is not only an issue of dwindling availability, but also one of quality, accessibility and affordability. For decades, Yemen has experienced a paucity of water, but the current conflict has exacerbated the problem, posing serious threats to the country’s stability and people’s livelihoods. At worst, tension triggered by water insecurity could perpetuate the conflict, especially as this natural resource is further depleted in the absence of effective governance.
Currently, international NGOs operating in Yemen and the United Nations are primarily focused on ensuring the unobstructed delivery of humanitarian aid, including clean water supplies. There’s an urgency to facilitate water access and delivery because of the alarming situation on the ground where 11.2 million people are in dire need of clean drinking water and sanitation services. However, while humanitarian aid can relieve some immediate water needs, these efforts are not enough to address deeper concerns about water sustainability. Yemen’s water crisis is becoming more acute and requires urgent policy action. Finding long-term solutions to the water crisis in Yemen will require going beyond just meeting emergency water needs and shifting attention to sustainable water management practices and affordable and equitable service delivery.
Water challenges are mostly a problem of governance
Yemen is already at a disadvantage because of its semi-arid landscape. Unlike other countries in the region, Yemen has no permanent rivers. As a result, the country relies primarily on groundwater and aquifers for its agricultural irrigation and urban water consumption. Currently, across the country, groundwater is being depleted at twice the rate it’s being replenished. Population growth in recent years has made the problem worse. For several decades, Yemen’s per capita share of water resources has been declining. In 2014, it was down to about 80 cubic meters per person, compared to an average of 550 cubic meters in other Middle Eastern and North African countries. In the coming years, climate change will also exacerbate Yemen’s water scarcity, particularly if the country doesn’t develop strategies to mitigate the effects of rising temperatures.
However, Yemen’s water woes are about much more than the country’s geographic pre-disposition to drought. At the heart of the problem are years of failed government policies and mismanagement that encouraged inefficient water use. For example, fuel subsidies encouraged farmers and others to over-extract ground water using wells powered by gas that the government kept cheap. In many areas, it led to so-called “race to the bottom” competitions where neighbors tried to exhaust a water source before anyone else could. In a similar vein, a flooding of government-subsidized imported grains in recent decades is one reason domestic farmers began relying more on the lucrative cash crop qat, which is also very water intensive to grow. The cultivation of this widely popular mild narcotic leaf accounts for 37 percent of all water used for irrigation in Yemen.
Corruption and a lack of political will have only compounded the problem of having limited local and state water policies. Even prior to the current conflict, feeble government institutions failed to prevent the illegal drilling of water wells, despite a 2002 national law that requires permitting for the process. In the absence of strict government regulation and enforcement, water rights are often appropriated by means of bribery and patronage networks. In many cases, members of the influential elite class, such as government officials and tribal leaders (sheiks), are known to illegally drill their own wells with immunity. This has led to almost a near total privatization of Yemen’s water resources.
Inequitable water access, rising costs and compromised quality
Many in Yemen now receive their household water from tanker trucks that buy it from well owners. This informal water supply system has flourished in the absence of formal and subsidized municipal water services. The near complete collapse of state institutions after war broke out in Yemen has further eroded the municipal water system. As a result, water access for drinking, sanitation and hygiene purposes is limited to those who can pay for it. According to the World Bank, in 2018, the cost of water supplied by tankers cost seven times the price of municipally supplied water in Sana’a. In Aden it costs 25 times as much. The war has also created a fuel crisis due to import restrictions, which has driven up the price of gasoline. This in turn has also sent the price of water skyrocketing because of the country’s reliance on fuel-run water pumps to extract it from the ground.
The quality of available water has suffered without oversight from some sort of governing body. Private suppliers largely operate outside of the state’s established legal framework. A lack of monitoring and quality-control has contributed to the spread of waterborne diseases like cholera, which has been associated with more than 3,000 deaths since early 2017, according to UNICEF.
A threat to stability and the peacebuilding process
If the core causes of the water crisis are not effectively addressed, it has the potential to further erode the country’s instability. There is historical precedence. In many rural parts of the country, water scarcity has long been a source of tribal conflicts. In 2010, the Yemeni government estimated that some 4,000 people die each year in tribal disputes over land and water. In one extreme example, two prominent tribes in the al-Jawf governorate fought over a well on their territorial border for nearly three decades. As water scarcity intensifies, competition for resources are expected to escalate and lead to increased conflict.
If Yemenis are not provided with a legal and just system to help them access and distribute the country’s limited supply of water, many will feel they are left with no choice but to extrajudicially settle disputes. While water scarcity alone might not lead to a wide-scale, country-wide violent conflict, the combination of water-stressed communities and the absence of a strong central government poses significant threats to sustainable peace. One of the most destabilizing inheritances of the current war has been the collapse of the formal security sector, including a police force. This environment has allowed for the proliferation of militias and armed groups, who have capitalized on the security vacuum to consolidate their control of territory and state institutions.
Some of these groups have used water as a weapon of war, either to punish the local population or to recruit new fighters. According to reporting from the Associated Press, Al-Qaeda leaders have instructed their followers to win over the hearts and minds of local populations by providing them with necessities like water and electricity. In Taiz, Ansarallah (the Houthis) have used water as a weapon of war by blocking humanitarian aid organizations from distributing it. This trend is hardly unique to Yemen. Conflicts in the larger Middle East region have played out in a similar fashion. In Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State was known to cut off water access to certain populations.
The path forward
There is a strong link between the water crisis and increasing instability that requires immediate attention from local, regional and international actors who are invested in peacebuilding in Yemen. Leadership at all levels need to recognize that the water crisis is not only an environmental issue but is also inherently a political and social one. Solutions exist, but will require strong political will and collective action.
The UN envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, is already working with the two main parties to the conflict—the Houthis and the internationally recognized government (IRG)—to facilitate the distribution of humanitarian aid in the country. This is a chance to engage the parties further. Griffiths should use the opportunity to force discussions about the management of shared water resources. Civil society groups should also be included in these talks to ensure the interests of a wide-variety of Yemeni communities are included. The warring parties will have to be persuaded that it is in their self-interest to develop a long-term water management strategy independent of other ongoing negotiations about Yemen’s future.
Cooperation on water management could be one way for the parties to build trust. A UN-sponsored water contract could serve as a good starting point for future peace building since it’s an issue that is relatively less politicized.
Similarly, humanitarian organizations need to shift their focus from just delivering aid to working with local government authorities, such as the National Water and Sewerage Authority, to reassert their regulatory authority when it comes to water management. While the current conflict has eroded both the capacity and function of many of these government actors, NGOs can assist in trying to rebuild these agencies’ relationship with the community.
In order for humanitarian organizations to do this work, they will need monetary support. Currently, there’s an acute shortage of humanitarian funding for critical water and sanitation services in Yemen. In a joint letter published in June 2020, a group of humanitarian organizations operating in Yemen warned that more than 6 million people could lose access to water if funding shortfalls continue. Donors will also have to substantially increase their funding beyond just providing basic water supplies. Money is also needed to begin laying the foundation for the implementation of water management policy. Failure to address the root causes of the water crisis will only add significant hardships to a country already crumbling under the weight of disease, hunger and social and economic inequalities.
Author bio: Hadil al-Mowafak is a research fellow at the Yemen Policy Center. She recently graduated from Stanford University with a bachelor’s degree in political science. Previously, as a researcher for the Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, she documented war-time human rights abuses including civilian casualties, the use of child soldiers, extrajudicial killings and arbitrary detentions. Al-Mowafak was one of the thousands of Yemeni citizens who took to the streets during Yemen’s popular uprising in 2011 demanding a peaceful transition to democracy.