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Corruption fuels crisis in water-poor Yemen

As Yemen struggles to defeat Al Qa'ida,  to end a tribal uprising in the north and to prevent the south from seceding, water could turn out to be the thing that tips the country over the edge. Like much of the Gulf, Yemen faces a reduced water supply resulting from climate change and from rising temperatures compounded by poor management.

Without radical reform of agricultural and other policies, the Yemeni capital Sana'a stands in a decade at most to become modern history's first capital to run out of water, according to a recent projection by the World Bank-funded Sana Water Basin Management Project. Rapidly dwindling water resources are likely to lead to disputes, reignite riots against a government already widely viewed as corrupt, nepotistic and incompetent and strengthen Al Qa'ida's Yemeni affiliate, Al Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

One of the world's water poorest nations, Yemen is consuming its limited water resources at a far faster rate than it is able to replenish them. At Yemen's current seven per cent population growth rate, consumption can only increase. Yemen's population is set to almost double from 23 to 40 million over the next two decades.

Alongside unemployment, water is driving increased internal migration and urbanisation. Some 70 per cent of Sana'a's population either buy their water from private vendors or collect free water from local mosques. Vendors sell a liter of water for $0.15, a steep price in a country where incomes average $2 a day. The vendors draw their water from wells near the capital and deliver it in tanker trucks or jerry cans. With no enforced standard for potable water, quality varies.

Water extraction rates in Sana'a are believed to outstrip replenishment by a factor of four. Sana'a's water basin is close to collapse. So is the basin in Amran, 50 km north of Sana'a. Of the 180 wells tapped a decade ago by Sana'a's municipal water company, only 80 remain active. In some districts of the capital, taps have shut down. In others, supply is interrupted at least once a month.

In 2008, the Eurasia Group reported that 19 of Yemen's 21 aquifers were not being replenished and that in some cases non-renewable fossil water was being extracted. Wells in several parts of the country have run dry. The falling water table means wells have to be dug deeper at levels of 200 m and more where the water is contaminated.

Alongside rising domestic consumption, Yemen's water crisis is fueled by corruption, poor or no resource management and wasteful irrigation. Agriculture consumes most of Yemen's water. Qat, whose leaves are consumed as a daily stimulant by the majority of Yemeni men, is Yemen's foremost agricultural product. The more water the plant gets, the more productive it is, making water conservation a non-starter.

Yemen's lack of resource management is evident from the fact that the government created a separate ministry for water and environment only in 2004. Six years later, the country still suffers from lack of effective regulation and oversight, particularly with regard to groundwater. As a result, digging of wells remains uncontrolled and so does extraction of groundwater.

Water Minister Abdul Rahman Fadhl Iryani, unable to enforce licensing of new wells, estimates that 99 per cent of water drilling in Yemen is unlicensed. Moreover, Yemen does not regulate the import of drill rigs, which are not subject to custom duties or taxation. Yemen is estimated to have some 800 privately owned drill rigs, a number far higher than most other countries.

Subsidised diesel powers landowners' water pumps. Yemen has so far resisted donor demands that it abolish diesel subsidies ever since rioters fearing price hikes and higher inflation in 2005 forced the government to drop efforts to do so. Abolishment of subsidies would also cut into profits from diesel smuggling that are raked in by the country's elite.

Yet, the more the Salih government postpones biting into the sour apple, the sourer it gets. Donors may be betting on the president's son, whom Salih is grooming as his successor. A ten-point reform plan drafted by deputy finance minister, Jalal Omar Yaqoub, that includes abolishing subsidies and streamlining bureaucracy, has curried favor with the United States and other donors.

The water crisis plays into the hands of Al Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula , the Al Qa'ida offshoot that claimed responsibility for the failed Christmas Day bombing of a USA airliner. To compensate for its lack of control in large parts of the country, the government has delegated responsibility for water to local authorities, establishing water companies primarily in urban areas. It is in those tribal areas, like Marib and Shabwa, where no such companies were created that AQAP is strongest.

Economic and political reforms demanded by donors will have to go beyond cost-cutting to incorporate more efficient water use and distribution, pricing to encourage water conservation and development of sustainable agriculture. Without such reforms, water could be at the core of Yemen's next generation of conflict.

James DorseyJames M. Dorsey is a freelance journalist who has covered ethnic and religious conflict for the past 35 years for publications like The Christian Science Monitor and The Wall Street Journal. He has visited Yemen twice in recent months. Images by James Dorsey


Topic tags: james dorsey, yemen, water crisis, Al Qa'ida



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