Opinion

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

This crisis is the product of climate change, poor water management, and irresponsible use. Rainfall has dramatically decreased and aquifers are quickly drying up. Currently 99 percent of drilling in Yemen is illegal, and the government in Sana’a has little authority outside the capital.

Drugs and population growth

Contributing to the water shortage is Yemen’s addiction to qat. An estimated 70 percent of Yemeni men chew the plant’s leaves daily for a mild narcotic effect. Most farmers have abandoned food crops in order to grow qat since the drug is much more profitable. But this thirsty plant is sucking up more than half of Yemen’s water supply.

A rapidly growing population further complicates the water scarcity issue. At a growth rate of 7 percent a year, Sana’a has one of the fastest growing populations of any capital city in the world. Yemen’s population has quadrupled over the last 50 years and is predicted to triple again by 2015, estimated to rise from 23 million to 60 million.

Need more than military aid

As the water crisis progresses, Yemen stands to become even more violent and desperate – a situation that directly affects US national security. US intelligence officials have acknowledged that Yemen is the most active and well-established Al Qaeda cell outside of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region. And the US has recently pumped over $150 million dollars into upgrading Yemen’s counterterrorism capacities and training and equipping their security forces. Wikileaks documents now divulge that the US is behind drone attacks in Yemen as well.

But the security challenges in Yemen are much more complicated than simply bolstering its security forces or launching covert military campaigns. Considering the looming water crisis and the instability that accompanies it, any effort to deal with terrorism in Yemen must include solutions to the water issue.

Military aid or force does not address the circumstances of poverty, lack of education, and basic needs that enable extremist ideology. Long-term strategies must focus on peacebuilding, education, and economic development, along with ways to deal with the water crisis.

Related: Q&A: Is Yemen the next Afghanistan?

It would be irresponsible for the United States to focus solely on the military dimension of the Yemen challenge. The country’s long list of problems does not lend itself to limited or short-term approaches. The stability the West hopes to achieve in Yemen cannot occur if the country’s water crisis is not addressed in a substantial way.

Halima Gellman is a Masters Candidate at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs. She has worked on issues relating to refugees, women, and peacebuilding in Sudan, Egypt, Morocco and Algeria.

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