Our guest blogger is Ken Sofer, Special Assistant with the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress
Yemen used to be an afterthought in the Middle East for most Americans. But that changed when the gathering threat from Al Qaeda emerged there in recent years and anti-government protests erupted this Spring. Indeed, the Washington Post reported last weekend that the terror network is taking advantage of the fact that the Yemeni military is tied up fighting anti-government forces:
Islamist extremists, many suspected of links to al-Qaeda, are engaged in an intensifying struggle against government forces for control of southern Yemen, taking advantage of a growing power vacuum to create a stronghold near vital oil-shipping lanes.
The Post article on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, correctly highlights some of the key U.S. concerns in Yemen resulting from the political crisis and now, tribal war. Unfortunately, this story and most reporting on Yemen from the mainstream press ignores the fact that Yemenis by and large aren’t concerned about al-Qaeda taking over their towns. They’re worried about access to water.
While President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s autocratic rule and al-Qaeda’s violent acts make Yemen a difficult place to live, the devastating lack of water supplies for most Yemenis towers over al-Qaeda as the single greatest threat to their livelihood.
Yemen is already the most water poor country in the Middle East, but the problem is exacerbated by the country’s highly rural population, the fact that its most populous cities sit over a mile above sea level and the population’s addiction to the water-intensive drug khat, which consumes 37 percent of Yemen’s water supply each year. In 2007, Yemen’s Minister for Water and the Environment claimed the capital city of Sana’a was using water “ten times faster than nature is replenishing it.” This rapid rate of consumption puts Sana’a at risk of becoming the first world capital to completely run out of water.
The political turmoil consuming Yemen isn’t helping. Most of the country receives water from massive diesel-powered drills that pump water from wells over 1,000 feet deep, but many of the drills shut down once opposition tribes attacked domestic oil and diesel production facilities.
Tying our relationship with Yemen strictly to the threat of AQAP and increasing the number of drone strikes on terrorists while the vast majority of the population suffers from a humanitarian crisis makes us look completely out of touch with realities on the ground and, in the long run, puts our national security interests at greater risk. If you want to know what’s on the minds of most Yemenis, it’s worth bringing to mind the phrase that defined President Clinton’s campaign for the White House in 1992: It’s not AQAP, it’s the water, stupid.