From Eureka Street, freelance writer James Dorsey looks into water consumption in Yemen.
Without radical reform of agricultural and other policies, the Yemeni capital Sana'a stands in a decade at most to become modern history's first capital to run out of water, according to a recent projection by the World Bank-funded Sana Water Basin Management Project. Rapidly dwindling water resources are likely to lead to disputes, reignite riots against a government already widely viewed as corrupt, nepotistic and incompetent and strengthen Al Qa'ida's Yemeni affiliate, Al Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
One of the world's water poorest nations, Yemen is consuming its limited water resources at a far faster rate than it is able to replenish them. At Yemen's current seven per cent population growth rate, consumption can only increase. Yemen's population is set to almost double from 23 to 40 million over the next two decades.
Alongside unemployment, water is driving increased internal migration and urbanisation. Some 70 per cent of Sana'a's population either buy their water from private vendors or collect free water from local mosques. Vendors sell a liter of water for $0.15, a steep price in a country where incomes average $2 a day. The vendors draw their water from wells near the capital and deliver it in tanker trucks or jerry cans. With no enforced standard for potable water, quality varies.
Water extraction rates in Sana'a are believed to outstrip replenishment by a factor of four. Sana'a's water basin is close to collapse. So is the basin in Amran, 50 km north of Sana'a. Of the 180 wells tapped a decade ago by Sana'a's municipal water company, only 80 remain active. In some districts of the capital, taps have shut down. In others, supply is interrupted at least once a month.
In 2008, the Eurasia Group reported that 19 of Yemen's 21 aquifers were not being replenished and that in some cases non-renewable fossil water was being extracted. Wells in several parts of the country have run dry. The falling water table means wells have to be dug deeper at levels of 200 m and more where the water is contaminated.
The water crisis plays into the hands of Al Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula , the Al Qa'ida offshoot that claimed responsibility for the failed Christmas Day bombing of a USA airliner. To compensate for its lack of control in large parts of the country, the government has delegated responsibility for water to local authorities, establishing water companies primarily in urban areas. It is in those tribal areas, like Marib and Shabwa, where no such companies were created that AQAP is strongest.
Economic and political reforms demanded by donors will have to go beyond cost-cutting to incorporate more efficient water use and distribution, pricing to encourage water conservation and development of sustainable agriculture. Without such reforms, water could be at the core of Yemen's next generation of conflict.