Yemen water crisis

Last Saturday Harvard University hosted a conference titled Yemen in Transition: Challenge and Opportunities. The conference covered four topic areas: (1) Women and Youth; (2) Politics and Reform; (3) Economic Development; and, (4) The Water Crisis. The conference abstracts are downloadable from the above link and somebody was recording things (audio and video) so I’ll keep an eye out to see if/when that is publicly available.

I was able to make it to the session on the water crisis, which was fascinating. Not only because Yemen’s water problems have been in the news so much lately but because the opportunity to hear first hand from government officials and researchers was enlightening. Of course it would have been much better to have seen the linkages of the water crisis with the other areas covered by the conference. But at any rate, here were some of the take-home messages that I took home.

First a few facts: (1) The average water user in Yemen uses 140 cubic meters of water a year. That’s an order of magnitude less than comparable averages in the MENA region (Middle East/North Africa) and well below the 2500+ cubic meter level of North Americans. I’m always wary of these national stats disguising local variation, but the point is clear: people already conserve water. (2) The large and rapidly growing city of Sana’a has connection rates for water service of about 56% with service roughly once every three weeks. (3) There are around 50000 deep wells drilled for irrigation and 800 rigs indiscriminately (and often illegally) bringing new wells online. The water table drops anywhere from 1-7metres per year in most basins. (4) About 10 million people are listed as food insecure, half of them severely food insecure.

With that small bit of background it is not surprising why water is of such great concern. In January 2011 Yemen developed a new national water policy.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the debate amongst the conference panelists was qat production. Qat is a cash crop that uses very little water, but still uses most of the water in a country where agriculture consumes upwards of 85% of the water. So on one side there is a contingent saying ‘get rid of qat and grow food.’ On the other is a contingent trying to put qat production in context. This latter group sees the current emphasis on qat as an outcome of structural adjustment processes that began in the 1970s and which sought to bring Yemen’s agricultural production into the global market economy. Those adjustments precipitated the large era of well-drilling. One of the participants at the conference noted that irrigated agriculture has increased 15 times from 1970-2008. At first the agricultural sector was growing citrus fruits, grapes and qat. But during a period of drought, and the ending of subsidies for the diesel needed to run irrigation pumps, water availability went down and costs went up. So qat production intensified as the most efficient way to use water.

Well, this is really interesting to me because there is now this contextually thick problem. Qat uses most of the water but it is also supporting Yemen’s agricultural production – which accounts for around 17% of GDP. It isn’t irrational for farmers to produce qat but the lack of domestic food production leaves Yemen exposed to globally volatile food prices. Further, with cities like Sana’a and Taiz and rapidly expanding urban populations it pushes the question of water use to the fore: should water be used for qat or for cities? At present there is a lot of talk about desalination – but the water would have to be pumped up several kilometers and inland several hundred, so it isn’t a particularly feasible prospect. Somebody suggested a program of coastal urbanization and desalination. Moving people to water while also making water for people.

For me, this introduction to more of the Yemeni water crisis has prompted much interest, so I’ll be starting to follow this more closely and to post more as I learn more.