Khaled Abdullah/Reuters
Women and children, displaced by the ongoing fighting in northwestern Yemen, collect water from a tank in al-Mazraq refugee camp near the Saada province, October 4.

At heart of Yemen's conflicts: water crisis

A recent report shows that 70 to 80 percent of rural conflicts are over water shortages in Yemen, already on the brink of becoming a failed state.

While domestic insurgencies chip away at the control of Yemen's central government and an Al Qaeda branch gains strength in regions beyond the government's reach, another crisis — one that affects Yemen's entire population — has the potential to contribute to the country's instability and potential trajectory toward failure.

Yemen is running out of water – fast.

But the water crisis and the rise of militancy are not unrelated perils said Abdulrahman Al Eryani, Yemen's minister of Water and Environment, in an interview. Much of the country's rising militancy, he argues, is a conflict over resources.

"They manifest themselves in very different ways: tribal conflicts, sectarian conflicts, political conflicts. Really they are all about sharing and participating in the resources of the country, either oil, or water and land," said Minister Eryani. "Some researchers from Sanaa University had very alarming figures. They said that between 70-80 percent of all rural conflicts in Yemen are related to water."

Khalid Al-Thour, a geology professor at Sanaa University, adds that recent reports have indicated that Sanaa's wells will run dry by 2015 at current water-usage rates.

In their 2009 Failed States Index, Foreign Policy magazine topped their analysis with a sobering assessment of Yemen as "a perfect storm of state failure," including disappearing oil and water reserves.

The World Bank considers Yemen "one of the most water-scarce countries in the world" where only 125 cubic meters of water are available yearly per capita compared to the world average of 2,500 cubic meters. Just 46 percent of Yemen's rural population has direct access to an adequate water supply and the number is only slighter better in cities, according to the German Development Service (GDS), which is working with the Yemeni government to improve water management.

Public access to water is particularly sparse in Taiz, Yemen's third-largest city, where access to public water tanks is allowed only once every 45 days. When households run out of their personal water supply they have the option to buy water from private companies but in Yemen, where 42 percent of the population lives beneath the poverty line, many rely on charity from mosques to meet their needs, says Dierk Schlutter, coordinator for water and environment for GDS.

Soaring population, illegal wells, qat

Yemen's population of 23 million has almost tripled since 1975, according to UN statistics, and available water resources simply cannot cope.

The soaring population paired with poor management of water resources has led to what Dr. Thour calls a "disastrous situation." He says that the illegal drilling of wells into natural groundwater aquifers is increasing at an alarming rate and leaky pipes that waste up to 60 percent of water in urban areas are major culprits. Although water usage regulations are in place to tackle these issues, the government lacks the ability to enforce them.

"We have a war and we have all these troubles so the government doesn't want to think about water," says Thour.

Furthermore the production of qat – a mild narcotic that as a staple of Yemeni social gatherings is a driving force in Yemen's economy – uses up to 40 percent of available water in the capital Sanaa's water basin, according to the Ministry of Water and Environment. Qat farming has only increased in recent years.

"There is enough water for provision of a city of 2 million like Sanaa, if the people don't drill illegally in the outskirts and take the water for irrigation of a cash crop like qat," says Dr. Schlutter. "It's a very complicated social issue because of the social value of qat chewing in this society."

Yemenis reluctant to accept solutions

Experts say potential solutions to Yemen's water crisis include increasing the implementation of rainwater harvesting in rural areas and modern irrigation techniques that waste less water than current methods. However, the challenge is convincing Yemenis that these changes to the status quo will bring economic benefits as well.

"You don't need to tell people who are fighting everyday to get water that there is a crisis. What is lacking is providing them with alternatives and options about what they should do," said Eryani. "The main problem is that you have to create incentives, even if people understand what they should do if there is no incentive they wont do it ... and the best incentive of course is economic."

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