Yemen’s Water Crisis: A New Urgency to an Old Problem

06 April 2021   ·   Hadil Al-Mowafak

In Yemen’s complex humanitarian crisis, water scarcity, conflict, and climate change impacts are interlinked. The use of water as a weapon accelerates the emergency. Germany and other EU member states should support technical solutions to reduce the agricultural sector’s water dependency. Politically, they should strengthen communities’ self-management of water governance.

Yemen’s acute water scarcity poses a serious threat to the country’s stability and security. While the past six years of conflict cannot be attributed solely to water shortage, it is an important contributor. Studies reveal that water scarcity acts as a security threat multiplier in regions characterized by rising population, social and political tensions, as well as ineffective and unaccountable state institutions – such as in Yemen. The recent impacts of climate change and armed conflict on the country’s dwindling water resources create a new urgency to address this old problem.

Yemen’s government, crippled by its weakness and corruption, has not been able to effectively address the water crisis. The government’s failure to meet citizens’ basic needs, including water and food, led to a growing popular discontent, which culminated in the 2011 uprising that brought down the regime of Ali Saleh. Water woes can also be linked to the fuel crisis that sparked protests in 2014 and facilitated the Houthis’ takeover of the capital Sana’a.

Tensions Rise Between Different Societal Groups

In past years, water scarcity has forced many Yemeni families to leave their villages and move to the cities. In some instances, entire villages disappeared due to lack of water. This rural migration added stress to cities already running out of water. In the city of Taiz, for example, public networks deliver water only once every thirty to sixty days. Furthermore, due to the current conflict, reports reveal rising tensions between internally displaced persons (IDPs) and host communities over the sharing of limited resources – a problem that is likely to intensify.

In Yemen, water and land are closely associated with identity, especially in the Northern Highlands that maintain strong tribal values. Thus, competition over these resources can quickly spiral into a large pattern of conflict. In fact, a study by Sana’a University researchers found that 70-80 percent of all rural conflicts in Yemen are related to water, including tribal, sectarian, and political conflicts. 

A continuing government failure to enforce equal water distribution further heightens these tensions, especially as the social and economic impacts of Yemen’s rapidly depleting water are unevenly distributed. The scarcity highlights different forms of unequal competition over water use: between tribes, between large landowners and small farmers, between urban and rural communities, and between domestic and agricultural uses. Power dynamics on the ground favor those with more power and money. Hence, the water scarcity is disproportionately felt more by small farmers, poor downstream communities, and women and children.

Population Growth, Climate Change Impacts, and Shrinking Agricultural Productivity Deepen the Economic Crisis  

Yemen’s massive population growth intensifies water demand and strains water supplies, especially given the country’s dry and arid climate. Already in 2012, the per capita water availability was assessed as low as 86 cubic meters per year, one of the lowest in the MENA region. Yemen’s water insecurity and its high youth population could be a volatile mix, especially considering that many young men are armed, unemployed, and frustrated.  

Moreover, climate change impacts have become more visible in Yemen, placing additional strains on water security. Estimates of future rainfall variability show that drought periods are likely to increase. Similarly, it is expected that a high rise in temperatures could lead to higher evapotranspiration rates. Rising sea levels have leaked into freshwater coastal aquifers, worsening the water supply of three of the country’s major cities.

The impacts of water shortage on economic growth and job creation further deepens poverty and food insecurity. More than half of the country’s workforce is employed in agriculture, a sector that uses at least 90 percent of Yemen’s water resources. Hence, resource depletion, coupled with climate change and conflict, poses a serious threat to agricultural productivity and, consequently, food security and livelihoods. For example, the fall in groundwater levels in the Sa’ada Basin forced many farmers to abandon their lands. Constraints on agricultural production pushed Yemen to import as much as 90 percent of its staple foods.

Both Conflict Parties Use Water as a Weapon

As if Yemen’s water crisis was not drastic enough, the current conflict is further depleting water supply at an accelerated pace. The fighting that initially started between Houthi and Saudi-led Coalition forces created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Numerous reports have shown that both conflict sides have weaponized water by blocking water deliveries to civilians. Since April 2015, Houthis have laid siege to Taiz, restricting citizens’ access to water, food, and medicine. Critical water infrastructure, including dams, reservoirs, and freshwater pipes, has been destroyed by the fighting. Lack of clean drinking water has contributed to the outbreak of cholera, with more than 1 million suspected cases and nearly 1,500 associated deaths. The experience of Yemen, and other war-torn countries such as Syria and Iraq, has shown that water stress can create opportunities for armed and extremists groups to punish the civilian population to achieve military or political gains.

Combining Technical and Political Solutions to Give Sustainable Peace a Chance

It has become evident that the Yemeni government cannot address the staggering water crisis amidst the ongoing conflict. EU member states, including Germany, have been active in advocating for a lasting peace in Yemen. Their efforts should carry over to the water crisis, as water is a key ingredient for sustainable peace. At the 2021 UN donor conference for Yemen, Germany pledged $US 241 million for the humanitarian aid plan, which includes provision of clean water and sanitation services. Germany should continue its efforts to mobilize funds as 20 million Yemenis depend on humanitarian assistance today. However, humanitarian aid alone cannot solve the root causes of the water scarcity. A combination of technical and political solutions is needed to address the complex water crisis in Yemen.

On the technical side, Germany’s main agency for international cooperation and development (GIZ) should help Yemen plan for a less water-intensive economy. This could be done through financing and commissioning research into rain-fed and drought-resistant, high-value crops as well as efficient agricultural practices requiring less water. Investing in rain-fed agriculture can sustain thousands of livelihoods while decreasing agricultural reliance on the rapidly declining groundwater. Furthermore, investing in renewable energy, such as solar power, can alleviate irrigation problems caused by recurring fuel crises. Keeping water prices low could prevent farmers from substituting crops with low returns to water by crops with high returns to water, such as Qat.

Supporting Local Water Management Bodies Through Training

Given that ineffective governance is at the heart of Yemen’s water crisis, political solutions will have to focus on strengthening water governance and management systems. The Yemeni government already pursued a decentralized approach to water governance, a step in the right direction. The German government should empower Yemeni communities and water management bodies, such as local branches of the National Water Resources Authority (NWRA) and Water User Associations (WUAs), as they can play a big role in managing water on a holistic and sustainable basis. Community consultation and participation is vital at all stages of any water project to avoid poor interventions that aggravate water disputes. The integration of women in the project design and implementation phases is also important, as they suffer from the most acute consequences of water scarcity. As an initial step to more gender-sensitive projects, carrying out consumer surveys that include women’s input is necessary.

In the absence of government’s enforcement of water rights, local communities will continue to manage their resources. Germany should support these community self-management initiatives through education and training. Raising awareness and suggesting sustainable solutions among the Yemeni population about water issues, especially the invisible groundwater, is decisive to disrupt the cycle of inequality and conflict.

Frieden & Sicherheit Yemen Climate

Hadil Al-Mowafak

Hadil Al-Mowafak is a research fellow with the think-tank Yemen Policy Center. @Hodey_m @yemen_policy