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Water Challenges in Yemen

Fetching water in yemen
Photo1 : A group of men on their donkeys to fetch water, Yemen. (Source: laithinsyria2007, Flickr)

Inefficient water use: network leakages, agricultural waste, unaccounted for water

During the last decade, extensive development, rapid population growth and substantial improvement in the standard of living in Yemen have all intensified the imbalance between rising water demand and very limited existing water resources. Over the last ten years, domestic and industrial water demand has increased by 50%. There have also been substantial increases in agricultural water use. The amount of renewable water resources is about 2,5 BCM whereas the total demand is estimated to be 3,4 BCM. This represents a 0.9 BCM deficit, which is covered from deep aquifers, resulting in their ongoing depletion.[1]

The rate of water wastage and leakage or unaccounted for water (UFW) in supply systems in urban areas is high. An average wastage of 30-40% is frequently reported for many cities. A distribution system that leaks extensively is also exposed to contamination by water outside the pipes. With many cities lacking adequate sewerage or drainage systems, there are ample opportunities for contamination of drinking water supply systems by wastewater. In a number of instances, the outbreak of cholera, hepatitis, typhoid and other gastrointestinal ailments have been attributed to water and wastewater cross-connections.[2]

Internal disputes over water

Historically, Yemenis have been adept at managing their water. They have used elaborate terracing and runoff management systems, spate diversion and shallow groundwater management, according to the nature of the resource and the local social organization. Elaborately negotiated rules and organization accompanied the development and management of each water resource. Even so, frequent disputes arose. Critical for improving water-allocation policy is the recognition of water’s multiple uses. Rules for allocation, water-distribution means and designs for improvement require a better understanding of the present pattern of water use. This can be achieved through a water-accounting procedure, whereby water’s different uses are quantified and a better understanding of the relative quantities used by different sectors is obtained. The procedure classifies the various components of water balance by sector and gives an indication of how water management is performing.[3]

According to unofficial estimates, 2,500 people die annually as a result of water‐related conflicts. Therefore, prevention and adaptation strategies are needed at the local, regional and national level that are based on a robust understanding of the various sources of insecurity, their interdependency and cumulative conflict potential.[4]

Political and economic constraints

Yemen suffers from widespread poverty, demand pressures from a rapidly growing population and a deteriorating economy. Further, Yemen’s social and political unrest, exacerbated by economic stagnation and institutional incapacity, could have serious effects on regional stability and global security. Yemen’s water situation has deteriorated significantly since the start of the war in 2015. The ensuing blockade has prevented Yemenis from importing fuel, which is necessary to pump groundwater. Some 20 million people are now in need of water and sanitation, a 52% increase since before the war, and the price of water has increased so much that some families spend a third of their income on water. Since the normal means of supplying and storing water have been severely damaged by air strikes, Yemenis have resorted to collecting water in buckets when it rains. This has led to the spread of disease, including dengue and malaria.[5]

Coping with growing demand and urbanization

Most of the water withdrawn is groundwater, resulting in groundwater depletion as withdrawals exceed the annual groundwater recharge. The crops grown under full/partial control irrigation can be aggregated into six types: cereals, fruits, vegetables, cash crops, pulses and fodders. In 2010, the total harvested irrigated cropped area was 527,038 ha, distributed as follows: cash crops (cotton, coffee, tobacco, sesame and others): 157,878 ha or 30%, including 99,504 ha of qat; cereals (mainly sorghum and wheat and to a lesser extent maize, barley and millet): 123,195 ha or 23%; fruit trees: 75,997 ha or 15%, of which 11% is banana and 15% citrus; other crops in this category are grapes, palm dates, papaya, apricots, peaches, quinces, figs, apples and guava; vegetables: 72,364 ha or 14%, including 16,870 ha of potatoes cultivated particularly in the Dhamar and Amran governorates; fodder: 70,772 ha or 13%; pulses: 26,832 ha or 5%; most pulses are rainfed.[6]

Urbanization is becoming a serious challenge, as evidenced by the rapid growth of cities like Sanaa, Aden, Mukalla and Taiz over the past decades. The growth of Sanaa in particular and the increase of the cropped area under irrigation have seen the deficit between water demand and water availability grow over the years. This overexploitation has led to a continuous lowering of the groundwater table and the need to drill deeper and deeper wells. As a result, water is becoming increasingly expensive and inaccessible to the wide majority of urban dwellers.[7]

Public awareness and education campaigns

Growing public awareness of and education around new water regulations and increasing involvement of water user associations (WUAs) in local water management has led to new informal rule‐making that often protects the local community as a whole rather than only the elite.[8] A major incentive for farmers to join WUAs is the authority to co-design and co-implement spate subprojects. Farmers pay subscription and annual fees and play an active role in selecting the types of irrigation structures needed and contributing to subsequent implementation/supervision of civil works contracts.

The Ministry of Water and Environment, in cooperation with donors, adopted water conservation as a strategy for managing limited water resources and designed and implemented a public awareness and education campaign to raise awareness among members of the community.[9]

Climate change mitigation and adaptation

Climate change poses a significant threat to Yemen’s development. A range of other socio-economic and institutional factors hamper Yemen’s ability to respond to current and projected changes in climate, including weak institutional structures, lack of long-term reliable data or technical capacity to analyse the data, uncertainties in regional and local climate scenarios as well as socio-economic scenarios. Many of these challenges will need to be addressed if the government is to respond effectively to climate change. Yemen submitted its National Adaptation Programme of Action to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2009, thus laying the groundwork for a national plan of action on climate change. The key vulnerable sectors and areas identified include water resources, agriculture and livestock, energy and coastal zones. Adaptation options were subsequently selected via a consultative process with relevant stakeholders across the country.[10]

Shared surface and groundwater resources

The Wasia-Biyadh-Aruma Aquifer System (South) is part of the Rub’ al Khali structural depression that formed a depositional basin for Paleozoic and Mesozoic Formations. The basin stretches into north-eastern Yemen and is bounded by the Paleozoic North Hadhramaut Arch to the south. All Paleozoic and Mesozoic sedimentary sequences pinch out onto the North Hadhramaut Arch, which prevents the advance of Paleozoic transgressions further south. In the northern part of the basin, the flank slopes gently but in a step-like manner and the sedimentary column thickness increases from about 2 km near the crest of the Hadhramaut Arch to over 4 km on the Saudi-Yemeni border. Accordingly, the formations dip in an east to north-easterly direction. A reactivation of the North Hadhramaut Arch probably occurred in the Paleocene. Both the Arch and the Rub’ al Khali Depression reached their present form by the end of Eocene. As a result, the Paleogene Hadhramaut Group (Umm er RadhumaDammam Aquifer System) forms an extensive and almost continuous cover overlying the Cretaceous Formations in the eastern part of Yemen. [11]

[1] The Southern Hub, 2019. Water Scarcity in the Middle East.
[2] ACWUA, 2010. Wastewater Reuse in Arab Countries.
[3] Lichtenthaeler G, 2010. Water Conflict and Cooperation in Yemen. Middle East Report 254 (Spring 2010).
[4] Ministry of Water and Environment, 2010. Baseline Survey for Future Impact Evaluation. Sanaa Basin Water Management Project. MWE: 107.
[5] Al-Mujahed A and Naylor H, 2015. In Yemen’s grinding war, if the bombs don’t get you, the water shortages will. Washington Post.
[6] FAO, 2012. World agriculture towards 2030/2050. The 2012 revision. ESA Working Paper No. 12-03.
[7] Ministry of Water and Environment, 2010. Baseline Survey for Future Impact Evaluation. Sanaa Basin Water Management Project. MWE: 107.
[8] Van Steenbergen F et al., 2010. Guidelines on spate irrigation. FAO Irrigation and Drainage Paper 65.
[9] Huntjens P et al., 2012. The Political Economy of Water Management in Yemen: Conflict Analysis and Recommendations. The Hague Institute for Global Justice.
[10] Ministry of Water and Environment, 2010. Baseline Survey for Future Impact Evaluation. Sanaa Basin Water Management Project. MWE: 107.
[11]UN-ESCWA and BGR (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia; Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe). 2013. Inventory of Shared Water Resources in Western Asia. Beirut