Yemen’s Water Scarcity Problem

In the "Anatomy of the Worlds Driest Nations" section of our Summer 2015 issue, World Policy Journal highlights water management and scarcity issues in countries such as Yemen, Mauritania, and Niger. Today, Eirik Hovden of the Institute for Social Anthropology at the Austrian Academy of Sciences provides a closer look at why only half of Yemen's population has access to drinkable water. 

By Eirik Hovden

Yemen has the highest population and by far the lowest GDP on the Arabian Peninsula. Its geographical conditions create two major challenges that add to the country’s notorious water scarcity problem: low annual rainfall (although it has the highest in the Arabian Peninsula, in some places reaching 20-40 inches/500-1,000 mm per year) and overall high elevations. For example, the capital Sanaa is located at 2,300 meters above sea level. High elevations and rugged landscape makes water transport difficult. Moving available groundwater from lower elevations, such as from the coastal plains, to the populous highlands is too costly, especially if water desalination is necessary.

From economical, social, and cultural perspectives, Yemen also faces some unique challenges. One recurring and well-known problem is the strong incentive to grow qat or “khat,” a culturally and legally accepted stimulant that holds an important role in economic, social, and cultural life. Qat is a lucrative crop for farmers, especially if supplementary irrigation is applied during the dry winter season. It must be consumed shortly after harvesting, and because of its high market price, it can be irrigated with high-cost irrigation water (so high that water can be drawn from household water resources, which in most normal situations would be too costly for irrigation).

The country’s weak economy makes usually high-cost solutions difficult, if not impossible, to implement on a large scale. Practices such as desalination, advanced monitoring and water resource management, and higher rates of food import (which could relieve the overall need for irrigation water) are not commonly used.

In addition, Yemen’s weak central government poses a major challenge as it diminishes the possibility of enforcing water conservation measures, protection of aquifers, and other policies that would improve water availability and quality. The government’s high subsidies on diesel have made it profitable for private actors to over-extract groundwater, and subsidies of the few existing state owned water supply systems have led to inefficiency and poor maintenance of these. Over recent decades, informal patronage networks and corruption have also caused near total privatization of Yemen’s water resources. Private wells are drilled next to public ones, and government agencies lack the power to stop this. Consequently, violent conflicts and small-scale wars over water sources have claimed hundreds of lives in recent years.

Culturally and legally, the water situation in Yemen is also quite distinct. One finds a mix of state law, customary law, and Islamic law that varies from region to region. This means that local debates over water issues and water scarcity are situated in discourses that have not been easily recognized by the international environmental/development agencies active in Yemen.

Customary law is very pragmatic and regulates access to water resources held by private individuals and groups, especially in the rural tribal areas. Runoff water and groundwater rights often align with land ownership. Since traditionally accessible water resources in Yemen are relatively small and numerous, they are managed in small local schemes where neighbors have pre-emptive rights if someone wants to sell their share.  Even larger spate irrigation systems, where wadis from the mountains flow onto the coastal plain and are diverted into fields, are divided in smaller units. As a result, there has been little need for large-scale public water management in the past.

The concept of having a protection zone around a well where other wells cannot be sunk is indeed recognized in customary law. The intention is to protect the first well from losing its water, however, this principle is only practical on a very small scale. Water sources for cities are not sanctioned the same way, as they fall outside the tribal-legal community and correspondingly outside tribal jurisdiction. Often water supply for cities are dwindling due to over-extraction by surrounding farmers.

Islamic law inspires Yemeni state law in form and content, and Islamic ethics are very prominent in public discourse. Islamic water law builds to a large extent on customary water law, especially in matters of irrigation. In the past, Islamic institutions such as charitable endowments (waqf) used to be important in providing household water in urban areas and in larger villages from wells or rainwater-harvesting cisterns.

One would expect that principles such as preference of public interest over private gain in fundamental issues such as sufficient access to household water could be drawn from Islamic ethics. Unfortunately, such societal and environmental issues receive little attention in a country troubled by war, extreme poverty, and dominated by powerful warlords and clans. In the current political landscape, radical voices are far louder than those that call for a well functioning society, including the equitable and sustainable management of water.

In the last few decades, customary and Islamic water laws have come under pressure by new powerful actors. Wealthy rural elites own expensive equipment for drilling deep wells and pumping up groundwater with the result that the groundwater table is sinking rapidly, thus creating new and complex conflicts. What we can see is an endgame where poor and urban populations lose as the price for household water goes up and quality goes down.

Yemen’s national and regional water problems can only be solved as part of general political processes. The current war in Yemen has sent the once subsidized fuel prices skyrocketing. As a result, only few water pumps can be kept running, thus creating a disaster for many poor civilians. Only in very local rural settings is water still managed in a sustainable way through a wide range of ingenious local forms of rainwater harvesting and water conservation measures. This is partly due to the sheer necessity and partly due to the rich heritage of local self government and water management based on local knowledge.

Eirik Hovden (Ph.D.) is a researcher at the Institute for Social Anthropology (ISA), Austrian Academy of Sciences (AAS) in Vienna, Austria. He is currently working in the area of Yemeni history and has previously conducted fieldwork in Yemen focusing on Islamic charitable endowments and local forms of water management.

[Photo courtesy of Vinoth Chander]

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