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 predicted that 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.
“Civil war caused the suspension of many projects meant to address water scarcity,” Saleh tells LobeLog. “In 2013, the government had a strategy for handling this problem, but the offensive launched by the Houthis in 2014 hindered many initiatives, desalination foremost among them.”
In 2015, 13 million Yemenis lacked reliable access to drinking water. The dearth of potable water and destruction of sewerage during the Yemeni Civil War has contributed to recurring outbreaks of cholera in Yemen, a crisis that the United Nations barely has the resources to address. The sectarian violence has also prevented Yemeni officials from dealing with global warming, which will intensify water scarcity in the country in addition to increasing the frequency of extreme weather.
“The availability of water in Yemen has been severely affected by current events,” observes al-Sharjabi. “All wells associated with the public electric grid have stopped working. At the same time, the price of fuel has increased substantially, raising the cost of extracting water with diesel-powered pumps. With the continued clashes and militias in control of many cities, the ability of Yemeni institutions to function has decreased significantly. All these developments have accompanied the deterioration of the national currency and political interventions by the militias, contributing to the problem.”
If the international community wants to stop the Yemeni Civil War from becoming a permanent ecological and humanitarian crisis, regional and world powers must accelerate Yemen’s peace process and help the Yemeni Water and Environment Ministry respond to climate change and water scarcity. Though intergovernmental organizations such as the UN Development and Environment Programs have supported Yemeni efforts to prepare for global warming, the international community must go further.
“The Yemeni government is struggling with a lack of possibilities at the moment,” notes Saleh. “Local authorities have found temporary solutions by drilling wells, but they are not enough to meet the needs of Yemeni citizens. Yemen must arrive at a strategic solution through the desalination of seawater, but this proposal requires stability that has not existed in Yemen for over four years.”
Only an end to the Yemeni Civil War can deliver the divided country the peace and unity that it will need to devise a long-term solution to water scarcity. Although a wide gap remains between the Houthis and the Yemeni government, Yemenis across the political spectrum recognize that a future of perennial droughts and famines presents a far greater threat to Yemen than sectarianism and terrorism. For their part, officials at the Yemeni Water and Environment Ministry warn that Yemenis and their partners in the international community must act fast to prevent water scarcity from spiraling out of control.
“All water supply networks in Yemen are still operating—but at the lowest capacities possible,” al-Sharjabi tells LobeLog. “Prices have risen far beyond what the population can pay, especially in the context of the current economic conditions that affect almost every Yemeni citizen.”
Austin Bodetti studies the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia. He has conducted fieldwork in Bosnia, Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Oman, South Sudan, Thailand, and Uganda, and his research has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired.