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Water Security

Water Insecurity in Yemen and the Rise of Violent Conflict

By Vanessa Thevathasan

  •  November 19, 2015
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Major water shortages in Yemen has meant it is now one of the most water insecure countries in the Middle East, already a region struggling to deal with drought and insufficient water supplies for a rapidly expanding population.  The consequence has been a knock on affect on food security in the country. At present, over 13 million Yemenis are food insecure, which is over 40 percent of the nation’s population. With Yemen’s population set to double over the next twenty years, fears are mounting over the management of its scarce resources. If projections are correct, Yemen may be the first country to completely run out of water. The current escalation of violence that is threatening to tip the country into an all-out civil war is entangled with ownership and distribution of water and food resources.

Even before the current conflict, Yemen was already suffering with widespread poverty, population pressures and failing economy. In 2013, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification identified four of Yemen’s 19 governorates as having reached ‘emergency’ level food insecurity. A further nine were in ‘crisis’ and the remaining six ‘stressed’. It has since been reported that as many as 13-14 million Yemenis are food insecure. Yemen’s reliance on 90 percent of food needs being met by imports means that food security is closely tied to its economic performance, one that is perilously close to total collapse with ongoing conflict.

Protracted problems around Yemen’s food and water insecurity are directly entangled with the nation’s political and social instability. From the early days of the Arab Spring and the start of the unrest caused by the political coup from the Houthis rebel group that ousted the government in February this year, disrupted food supply chains and agricultural production has caused massive population displacement, and pushed thousands of people into poverty. With little investment in the agricultural sector, national food production cannot meet the food demands of its entire population.  The impact on hunger and malnutrition rates has been severe, and is annexed to the growing fears that the capital, Sana’a, is likely to be the first city in the world to completely run out of water.

The crisis means that 6.5 million people in Yemen are on the brink of starvation, with 13 million—over half the population—suffering from food shortages, according to the latest figures released by Oxfam. Instability means that Yemen’s National Food Security Strategy does not have the necessary political and economical foundations to allow agricultural policy implementation. The FAO has struggled to modernise Yemen’s agricultural sector and achieve a measure of food security at a grass-roots level.  Only seven percent of land in Yemen is arable. Poor agricultural production tied with unsustainable farming techniques has intensified water scarcity and further cemented inadequate water management:  90 per cent of Yemen’s water is used for agricultural production.  Political neglect on solving water insecurity issues in a fair and equitable manner has manifested into violent turmoil that is now engulfing the nation.  A study carried out by Sana’a University suggests that 70-80 percent of conflict in rural areas is related to water shortages.

Rural areas have long been left without access to water. Only a tiny proportion of Yemeni families are connected to the municipal supply. State-run water companies only supply some households in the major cities and 70% of Yemenis live in rural areas. Some women spend four to five hours a day collecting water. Instead of receiving an education, girls are instead spending their day fetching water for their family.  Contaminated water and lack of access to a diverse range of foods for children, has created a catastrophic risks to children: the UN reports that malnutrition and diarrhoea kills 14,000 Yemeni children under five each year.

In the city, water access is desperately sporadic.  Sana’s has only 40 percent of houses connected to water supplies, and even here residents are fortunate if water reaches their taps more than twice a week.  Lack of urban water maintenance means that the city’s pipe network is in critical need of repair, such that an estimated 60 percent of water lost is through leaks. Connecting all households would cost an estimated £2 billion, money the country simply does not have.

The water crisis has been exacerbated by extreme poverty. The IFPRI discussion paper, ‘Managing Transition in Yemen’, estimates that an additional US$3 billion to US$6.5 billion is needed to accelerate growth and achieve a measure of poverty reduction by 2020. With such poor economic outputs and heavy reliance on foreign aid to meet national food needs, such targets will clearly be missed as conflict spreads.  Even if the conflict was to cease today, the country is slowly running out of money.

Yemen is also dependent on imported fuel to keep the nation moving. However, curtailment on fuel imports and distribution since the conflict began has impeded efforts by humanitarian organisations to transport humanitarian supplies to community in desperate need of food and water. WFP has  distributed food to more than 400,000 people in Aden, Lahj, Abyan, Al-Dhale'e, Shabwa, Hajja and northern parts of Sa’ada, although this fell short of the 738,000 people it had hoped to reach. UN chief Ban Ki-moon has also said that the lack of fuel imports could cause humanitarian efforts to end within days. Already, the World Food Program said its programs are close to being completely shut down in the face of needing some 45,000 gallons of fuel to continue food distribution. WFP has warned the situation in Yemen was "catastrophic.” Emergency supplies from the humanitarian sector can only supply a small fraction of population needs leaving many people without the means to survive.

Water preservation, harvesting and purification are the possible solutions available to Yemen. It would be more cost- efficient to pipe the water into town than to ship it in via tanker. However, at present existing water laws as well as the Yemeni constitution declare water is a natural resource that cannot belong to anyone or be bought by the government. As such, the introduction of sustainable water management initiatives would require major reform, not currently on the political agenda.

Yemen is on the brink on of failure and extreme humanitarian catastrophe, a direct result on inability to fairly manage natural resources, food and water availability amongst its population. Without sustainable intervention to support a regional and national response to resource management fears over the spread of violence and instability will come to fruition and dye the cast of violence across the Middle East for generations to come. The current conflict in Yemen provides little opportunity to alleviate the food and water crises.

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