Wed, Mar 03, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Yemen under threat as water supplies dry up

Water already causes armed conflict in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, but there is worse to come and one of the causes of the problem is the cultivation of qat

By Hugh Macleod and John Vidal  /  THE GUARDIAN , WADI DAHR, YEMEN AND LONDON

There’s something a bit different about the three Rafik brothers proudly leading us around their field of lanky green trees, grown from the rich and rare soils of Wadi Dahr, north of the Yemen capital of Sana’a.

Unlike three-quarters of Yemeni men on the afternoon of a day off, there are no little green flecks around the teeth of Abdullah, Nabil and Ahmed: They are not chewing qat, they are growing it.

The bitter and mildly narcotic leaf is key to Yemen’s economy, and yet its enormous need for water is on course to make the capital, Sana’a, the first in the world to die of thirst. With the problem extending across the nation, the country is almost literally chewing itself to death.

From high on the scorched brown rock face that surrounds the Wadi Dahr valley, half an hour’s drive northwest of Sana’a, the fertile carpet of vegetation below looks miraculous. Like most of Yemen, these northern mountains are a dry and barren land. But the irrigation needed to grow qat, coupled with an exploding population, means Sana’a’s water basin is emptying out at a staggering rate: Four times as much water is taken out of the basin as falls into it each year.

Most experts predict Sana’a, the fastest-growing capital in the world at 7 percent a year, will run out of economically viable water supplies by 2017. That is the same year the World Bank says Yemen will cease earning income from its oil, which currently accounts for three-­quarters of the state’s revenues.

The cost of water in some suburbs of Sana’a has tripled over the past year, and armed conflicts over water resources around the city are increasing. Shortages in the summer months leave thousands of families with taps running dry, forcing them to spend a third of their meager incomes on buying water from trucks.

Mahmoud Shidiwah, chair of the Yemeni government’s water and environment protection agency, said 19 of the country’s 21 main water aquifers are no longer being replenished following a long drought and amid increasing demand. He says Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, receives less than 200m3 of water per person per year, well below the international water poverty line of 1,000m3. The water basin in Taiz, one of Yemen’s largest cities, has already collapsed. Neighboring Amran is close, as is Saada in the north.

The water situation is so serious that the government has considered moving the capital, as well as desalinating seawater on the coast and pumping it 2,000m uphill to the capital. A third solution would be to transfer water over the mountains from another basin.

However, he says: “We have a very big problem. All options have been found to be unacceptable.”

The best solution, everyone agrees, is to reduce the qat growing, which sucks up the largest share of water use. But this is also fraught with social and political problems, says Shidiwah, because in a country where half the population earn less than US$2 a day, it provides many jobs.

A meeting of Yemen’s Gulf Arab neighbors this weekend in Riyadh, following a London conference in January, is expected to make pledges of development assistance to the failing state. However, the UN’s appeal for US $177 million in humanitarian aid this year is so far only 0.4 percent funded, leading the World Food Programme (WFP) earlier this month to cut back rations for around 1 million Yemenis. A recent WFP survey found that one out of every three Yemenis — 7.5 million people — suffer chronic hunger.

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