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Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, long fraught by civil war and jihadist groups, is rapidly approaching a water emergency. The World Health Organization defines “extreme water poverty” as a supply below 1000 cubic meters per capital.
In Yemen, says Muhammad Lutf al-Uryani, Yemen’s former minister of water and the environment, it is substantially less.
“I think it’s around 120 cubic meters per year. This is diminishing because of population growth. This is actually around 10% of the world’s average. [It’s] less than 8% of what’s the requirements [are] for food and drinking, in terms of how much a person needs water for producing food.”
The country’s weak central government – often classified as a “failing state” – has been hard pressed to manage the crisis. In the Yemeni capital of San’a, where ground water is all but depleted, farmers have been digging their own wells to suck out the little that remains. It isn’t enough.
“San’a is about 3300 meters above sea level with a population of more than 2.5 million. Bringing water from the coastal areas is very expensive.”
Pumping water 3300 meters up a mountain is a luxury the country can’t afford much longer. In the long run, the only answer is to relocate the capital and most of its 2.5 million people.
“This will be the inevitable solution,” says Uryani, “because of the population growth in urban areas, not just San’a, but also other urban centers in the highlands. There’s no way we can provide enough water for drinking. The distribution will have to be by encouraging and providing incentives for the population to go down to the coastal areas and to start a serious plan for desalination development of coastal areas. The government is the main driver of the economy. It would not be possible to move population in the urban areas without moving government institutions down there.”
“It would have to be a gradual process. It cannot be a one-shot kind of thing like [in] some other countries. It would have to be gradual. You would have to move step by step. It’s not an easy decision, I realize that, but that’s why I say it would have to be gradual. I think maybe over a ten-year period we can do it.”
Yemen’s neighbors include some countries torn by war like Somalia, but also others flush with cash like Saudi Arabia.
“We have more than a million refugees from Somalia and the Horn of Africa,” says Uryani, “from as far as Chad, and Ethiopia, who come to Yemen because they cannot get through to other neighboring countries. They end up staying here and they add to our water problem. Droughts and wars in these countries increase these kinds of refugees.”
“On the other hand, we are neighbors to some of the richest countries in the Arab world. They are very advanced in desalination. They have reliable desalination as their source of water supply. They have to make an effort because it’s an expensive option. The wealth these countries have can make them able to pay for that cost.”
On the backdrop of a post-Arab spring political transition in Yemen and a costly war against al-Qaeda, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states fear that Yemen’s water crisis could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, causing a massive wave of refugees into their countries.
For them, and for so many countries in the world which depend on Gulf oil, funding a Yemeni water rescue has become a strategic necessity.
– Reported by Joseph Braude for America Abroad