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Yemen: Think things are bad now? Don’t let it run out of water.

WikiLeaks documents that revealed a coverup of US drone strikes in Yemen may complicate security concerns – beyond just the package bombs or Anwar al-Awlaki. But the real challenge is how to head off a water crisis that threatens to bring more instability and violence.

By Halima Gellman / November 30, 2010



New York

The security situation in Yemen looks increasingly fragile. The Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility for the two mail bombs destined for Chicago last month. And now, the release of WikiLeaks documents disclosing a coverup of US drone strikes by the Yemeni president pose new challenges to American national security.

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Then there’s Yemen’s rebel movement in the North, a secessionist movement in the South, 40 percent unemployment, dwindling oil reserves, and hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced people, with more than half of its population living on less than $2 a day.

Yet with all these problems, the most severe threat to Yemen’s future is its water crisis. Yemen is running out of water fast. Experts say that Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, is likely to run out of water by 2020. This kind of water scarcity breeds conflict and instability, in which Al Qaeda groups step in to fill the vacuum. If the US really wants to fight terror in Yemen, it must address its water shortage in meaningful ways.

Related: America's toughest terror test: Al Qaeda in Yemen

Severe water scarcity

Currently, only 20 percent of the Yemeni population is supplied with water. In Sana’a, up to 70 percent of residents depend on privately owned water trucks, and the cost of water has tripled in the last year, forcing families to spend about a third of their incomes on purchasing water. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace confirms this looming disaster, observing that “Sana’a will be the first capital in modern history to run dry.”

The director of the Sana’a Basin Water Management Project, funded by the World Bank, reported that the water that they are now drilling around Sana’a is the last of the natural water supply. Conflict over water resources is bound to rise as communities realize their wells have run dry and that they cannot afford increasingly expensive water. By some accounts, roughly 80 percent of current conflicts in Yemen are already over water.

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