Thirsty in Yemen

Background

Less than one percent of the water in the world is fresh water available for human use.  This makes water a precious resource for countries around the world, including Yemen.  However, Yemen is currently set on a course to become the first nation in the world to deplete its fresh water supply.

In the 1970s, the water table in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, reached as high as thirty meters below the earth’s surface.  Currently, the water table is as far as 1,200 meters below the surface in some areas of Sana’a.  This means that the aquifer is below sustainable levels for the growing population of Sana’a, and experts predict that by 2025 Sana’a will run out of water.  Nationwide water depletion is equally as precarious, with one report finding the majority of Yemen’s twenty-one aquifers failing to replenish during the rainy seasons.

Approximately ninety percent of Yemen’s domestic water supply is utilized for agricultural purposes.  Many of Yemen’s water problems stem from the farming of qat, a mild stimulant chewed by over seventy-five percent of the men in Yemen.  While qat is economically lucrative and returns a profit five times greater per cubic meter of water used than the next most profitable crop, qat farming also consumes fifty percent of the water used for agricultural purposes and forty percent of Yemen’s total domestic water supply.  Although farmers will likely continue to grow qat because of the strong market, qat farming only accounts for six percent of the total Yemen GDP and displaces more sustainable crops.

Another factor aggravating the water crisis in Yemen is the central government’s ineffective management of water-well drilling.  The Yemen government estimates that ninety-nine percent of the water extracted from the wells is unlicensed.  Yemen law mandates that only the government may dig and maintain water wells.  However, according to Sharia Law, the religious law of Islam, a landowner who drills a well on his private land owns the well, not the government.  Thus, landowners continue unlicensed drilling and water withdrawal from the aquifers in Yemen.

Trying to find Solutions

In order to address the water crisis, Yemen officials proposed several creative solutions; however, most require the cooperation of Yemen’s citizens.  Policy makers propose that the Yemen government should encourage its farmers to move away from cultivating qat and grow more sustainable crops that use less water.  In order to reduce farmer’s cultivation of qat, policy makers suggest the elimination of government subsidies and public purchases of qat.  However, as long as the cultivating of qat remains lucrative for farmers, it is unlikely that the farmers will stop growing qat.  Another potential solution is to set up rainwater-harvesting tanks in rural areas to reduce reliance on groundwater.  Policy makers also proposed that the Yemen government could desalinate water from the ocean.  However, desalination is costly and Yemen would likely need help from foreign governments in order to develop desalination plants.

In part because of the excessive qat farming and the uncontrolled production of private wells, Yemen’s water resources are nearly depleted.  Although time is against the people of Yemen, if the nation works together, along with  foreign assistance, Yemen can still create sustainable water conservation programs to correct its water crisis.


Sources:

Adam Heffez, How Yemen Chewed Itself Dry, Foreign Affairs (Jul. 23, 2013), http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/139596/adam-heffez/how-yemen-chewed-itself-dry.

Haley Sweetland Edwards, Yemen Water Crisis Builds, Los Angeles Times (Oct. 11, 2009), http://articles.latimes.com/2009/oct/11/world/fg-yemen-water11.

Krista Mahr, What if Yemen is the First Country to Run out Water?, Time (Dec. 14, 2010), http://science.time.com/2010/12/14/what-if-yemen-is-first-country-to-run-out-of-water/.

Yemen: Time Running Out for Solution to Water Crisis, Irin (Aug. 13, 2012), http://www.irinnews.org/report/96093/yemen-time-running-out-for-solution-to-water-crisis.

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