The many dangers of Yemen’s water shortage

15 Nov
Hana and Bushra struggle to carry water to their families on a perilous mountain track near a village in Taiz governorate.Photo by Mahmoud AssamieeMalak ShaherPublished:15-11-2010

In the best case scenario water is carried on a donkey’s back, but in most parts of Yemen, it is largely women who take up the burden of climbing up and down mountains to fetch water from springs and deliver it to their houses.For Hanan Hizam and Bushra Aqlan, two teenage neighbors who live on the peak of a mountain in Same’, Taiz governorate, getting water for their families is an arduous task.

Every day they clamber down the mountain side to reach a small river, where they fill their 20 litre water containers, place them on their heads, and climb back up the mountain. The number of journeys they must take each day depends on their families’ needs, but each trip takes just over an hour.

The two girls were filmed by a French organization, What’s Up Productions, that came to Yemen in June 2010 to conduct a study on the shortage of water. In the video posted on their website, Hanan said that a girl from their village had broken her leg and another had broken her arm on the same journey they do every day. She looks into the camera pleading to the government to help them get better access to water.

Water access in rural areas

Nearly 50 percent of those living in villages and remote parts of Yemen depend on springs, wells, or water trucks, according to a report by the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation published in 2010. But wells and water trucks are not always good alternatives for those living in rural areas. Wells are often unclean and water truck deliveries are expensive.

“The water truck in our village in Taiz costs YR 10,000 (USD 50) because my family lives very far from the city centre. They struggle a lot to obtain clean water,” said Mahmoud Saeed who currently lives in Sana’a.

A report titled ‘The Voice of the Poor’ released by Oxfam in partnership with the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation has noted that water scarcity has placed enormous pressures on farmers, some of whom have had to abandon food crops for cash crops such as qat. This brings about additional threats to the country’s food security.

The shortage and expense of water has also had negative effects on livestock production as farmers find it harder to water their animals and grow feed for them. This has led to an increase in poverty among communities in some rural areas.

In the remote areas where people do not have easy access to water, girls are increasingly dropping out from school as they have to spend more time collecting water from wells far from their houses, according to Abdu Al-Kubati, a water activist. Furthermore, many poor people in rural areas have resorted to drinking unsafe and contaminated water.

Water shortages in urban areas

There is a growing concern about Yemen’s rapidly depleting water reserves. According to a recent report published by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED), one third of Yemenis lack access to safe water.

The Minister of Water and Environment, Abdulrahman Al-Eryani, attributes Yemen’s water problems to its rapidly increasing population and to qat cultivation. Faced by shortages of water, those living in villages are leaving for the cities and contributing to Yemen’s already increasing urban population. They also come to the cities seeking work and a better life.

The increase in urban population has gradually resulted in diminishing water reserves in the cities. For example, the Sana’a water basin is running out of water – nearly 40 percent of the underground water supply in the Sana’a basin has already been depleted. The current population in Sana’a is estimated at 3 million, over a million more than a decade earlier.

In the not too distant past, people in the Sana’a basin were digging down 100 feet to hit water, but now they have to dig as deep as 1,000 feet, Al-Eryani mentioned in a workshop held by the ministry in June. Over the last 20 years, the groundwater in Yemen has been pumped up at a rate approximately four times greater than it can be replenished by natural recharge, the AFED report stated.

Water, qat and conflict

According to Professor Abdulla Al-Noman from Sana’a University’s Faculty of Agriculture, the planting of qat is increasing which further exacerbates the stress on water reserves, especially in Sana’a. There are approximately 13,500 wells in Sana’a alone that are dedicated to irrigating qat.

It is estimated that more than 90 percent of the water resources in Yemen are used for irrigation, with 36 percent consumed for watering qat trees alone. Wide-spread illegal well drilling in the Sana’a basin and elsewhere takes further unknown amounts of water.

The groundwater around the capital is depleting fast. The first layer of the basin from 30 to 70 meters has already run dry. Most of the second layer from 70 to 300 meters has been depleted, and the third layer which reaches 900 meters is fast heading towards depletion too, according to Engineer Abdulkhaleq Al-Wan, a public awareness specialist at the Sana’a branch of the National Water Resources Authority.

In fact, there is a real ‘water war’ in Yemen where in some areas people fight over water like the recent conflicts in Amran. Last year, in a small village in Amran governorate, qat farmers wanted to monopolize wells in order to irrigate their farms. As a result, many people were unable to obtain water from the wells they had been dependent on for their own domestic needs.

Arguments and acts of violence flared up between farmers and villages until an agreement was forged between the parties by local elders. Now anyone breaking the water sharing agreement has to pay a fine of YR 5,000 (USD 25).

In Rada’a district, Al-Baidh governorate, conflicts over water used to irrigate qat spilled over into deadly violence a few months ago. Conflict between the Wadi Thah and Al-Mas’oud tribes over a well irrigating qat led to attacks that left 11 people dead, six from Al-Mas’oud and five from Wadi Thah, according to Dhan Al-Rada’i, an eyewitness from a village overlooking the area.

According to a report by the Yemen Armed Violence Assessment (YAVA), violence over land and water kill far more people in Yemen than internal political conflicts. Around 4,000 people are killed over land and water disputes each year.

According to the United Nations, two to three litres of water are required per person per day for drinking, and 20 to 30 litres for other domestic needs. Nowadays, getting this basic minimum is becoming increasingly difficult for many Yemenis.

You can watch What’s Up Productions’ video about Yemen’s water crisis on their website at:


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