In early January last year, a series of explosions heavily damaged a water desalination plant near the Yemeni port city of Al-Mokha. In a single act, more than a million people in nearby Taiz were cut off from their only reliable water source.
Long a precious commodity, the impacts of climate change are making water even more scarce in Yemen, fanning the flames of violent conflict. While the United Nations warns of climate-driven wars as a danger of the future, in Yemen they are already a deadly reality.
Located on the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East. In a region known for its expansive deserts, it is also one of the driest. Historically, Yemen has been home to a diverse range of ethnic groups, and since decolonisation, has seen almost continuous conflict.
In just a few decades, Yemen has undergone dramatic changes — shifting from a population that generally clung to the coast to one living in large inland cities. Since 1980, the number of people living in Yemen has exploded from 8 million to over 27 million, an increase that has put intense stress on the country’s already strained water resources.
Meanwhile, the country began to open up to global trade, resulting in an introduction to a cash economy. Farmers switched from sustenance farming to cash crops, many of which use comparatively large amounts of water. Production of a stimulant drug called qat soared, which used up even more water, at the cost of food for the average Yemeni.
To address the growing demand for water, Yemen introduced new drilling techniques to tap into the country’s fossil water reserves. Year after year, an unsustainable amount of water was taken from the country’s aquifers. Wells got deeper, water became harder to come by, and prices rose. At the same time, the impacts of climate change only exacerbated the drought. Similar to the situation in Syria, as water and food became more scarce, populations were uprooted and violence ensued.
Today, Yemen is a country on the verge of drying out.
As tension over water resources reached a fever pitch, Yemen began to fracture along sectarian and regional lines. In 2014, protests against petrol price rises began, led by the country’s Houthi minority. These rises also invariably increased the price of water, which is often transported by truck. Eventually the unrest morphed into a revolution against the sitting government, which fled south to Aden. Conflict worsened when Saudi Arabia led a location of Arab nations in a bombing campaign against the Houthis in support of the relocated government. This fighting then further escalated, with the Arab Coalition deploying heavy ground troops to southern Yemen.
Several years on, the death toll stands at over 10,000. Far more severe, however, is the humanitarian crisis caused by destruction of infrastructure and economic blockades. A substantial portion of Yemeni infrastructure has been bombed, mostly by Saudi Arabian and UAE jets. Key bridges, viaducts, dams and water treatment plants have all been destroyed in the fighting, causing water scarcity to reach unprecedented levels.
Sanaa could the be the world’s first capital city to “run out of water” as groundwater reserves simply dry up.
In Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, residents report that piped water is non-existent.
“We use to get piped water; where I live we never bought water trucks. But since the war began we become almost dependent on water trucks which are from water wells,” said Sanaa-based journalist Hussain Al-Bukhaiti.
Al-Bukhaiti says the war — and specifically the naval blockade administered by the Arab coalition — has driven the price of fuel up, which has subsequently made it more expensive to hire water trucks.
“Sanaa was known to have water shortages before the war, especially in some areas,” he said. “But fuel prices were okay so it was easy to buy water trucks. But now it’s becoming more expensive and almost impossible to buy for some families who depend on government salaries.”
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), more than half the population ‒ 1,187,000 people — are currently suffering from “acute” stress due to lack of access to water and sanitation resources in Sanaa’s metro area. Hundreds of thousands more suffer “moderate” stress. However, Saana is not even the worst-affected area of the country.
In war-torn Saada Governorate, close to the border with Saudi Arabia, water stress is even more severe. There, 544,000 people, making up more than 60 percent of the population, fall into the “acute” category. Moreover, the fighting itself has made the search for water even riskier.
“The water project in Saada City has been hit by air bombs more than one time,” said Mohammed Al-Saiyaghi, a local administrator with Doctors Without Borders. “In the districts, the access to water is affected by two factors: people are afraid to be targeted by airstrikes or G2G (Ground to Ground) projectiles while bringing water, and people are afraid of cluster bombs distributed in some areas.”
Through the help of aid organizations, Saada City has been able to cling to some semblance of order. In provincial areas, life is even harder, and water prices are exorbitant.
“In the Saada City, the bureau/corporation of water is supported by ICRC and the UN. So, 1000 liters of water costs about 1 USD maximum. But in the districts, the 1000 liters of water costs at least 10 USD minimum,” Al-Saiyaghi says.
In a country where the average government salary amounts to less than 100USD a month, and many people earn even less, this means many people struggle just to pay for this basic necessity.
While the country’s warring factions may reach a political solution in the near term, the factors underlying Yemen’s water scarcity are not likely to improve. Primarily, Yemen is beset by a weak, and in many places non-existent state.
“I think if you look at it from the angle of water stress compared to capabilities to respond, Yemen is pretty bleak. When you talk about water stress in other countries like Syria before the war, India, etc. they all have better administrative capabilities compared to Yemen,” said Collin Douglas, a senior fellow with The Center for Climate and Security.
“The biggest contributors are mismanagement and a general lack of governance… The needed maintenance of infrastructure and conflict resolution is not there.”
What’s more, the impacts of climate change will only intensify in the coming years. While World Bank modeling from 2014 suggests that a warmer climate may increase rainfall, evaporation will increase considerably, which would reduce the overall amount of water reaching Yemeni rivers and aquifers.
Within this environment, some researchers have suggested that Sanaa could the be the world’s first capital city to “run out of water” as groundwater reserves simply dry up. Douglas, however, believes the city is more likely to fall into a period of decline before this even happens, driven by wartime damage to critical infrastructure as well as overwhelming refugee inflows.
“In reality, the city wouldn’t need to go dry to decline. The water supply would just have to dip enough to make the current population unsustainable,” Douglas said. “The infrastructure in place is obviously not going to survive the war unscathed, and this could contribute to making the city less livable.”
Ravaged by war, climate change, water shortage, and government mismanagement, Yemen is already in many ways a failed state. It will require immense assistance just to provide for its people’s basic needs in years to come.
Last month, the UN asked for an unprecedented $2.1 billion to help stave off the country’s “worst humanitarian crisis” ever. With foreign aid budgets being slashed globally, it is unclear if this money will ever arrive.