Yemen: Scarce Water, Security Threat?

yemenwaterboy2World Bank Photo Collection/Flickr

The ten most water-stressed countries in the world – gosh, it sounds like a bad Buzzfeed article – are all in the Middle East or North Africa. Yemen, perhaps best known in the U.S. as the target of covert drone strikes, is in an especially dire position. War News Radio’s Amy DiPierro asks whether water – as much as terror – is a security threat to the world.


AMY DIPIERRO: Yemen is in a crisis. It’s not a crisis caused by extremist training grounds, nor by radical Islamic clerics, nor by U.S. drone strikes.

HILLARY CLINTON: (press conference) Many wells in Yemen will run dry in as little as 10 years.

DIPIERRO: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking just over a year ago on World Water Day.

CLINTON: Water resources could be targeted by terrorists or manipulated as a political tool. These difficulties will all increase the risk of instability within and between states. So these threats are real and they do raise serious security concerns.

DIPIERRO: As of 2011, Yemen is the seventh-most water-stressed country in the world. It is home to a growing population and a shrinking water supply. Internal problems – most of all widespread poverty, political uncertainty following the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012, and economic dependence on water-intensive crops – frustrate efforts to manage water resources. The most immediate consequence for nearly half of the population is the inability to produce or purchase the food they need.

Secretary Clinton and others consider Yemen’s water crisis to be a security threat to the region and to the United States. But beneath this strategic danger, lack of water in Yemen is a local humanitarian challenge.

Then again, it’s easy to overlook a problem that lies under the surface – in the groundwater.

FRANK VAN STEENBERGEN: If you only had rivers, and you would use all of your water from your rivers, the river runs dry.

DIPIERRO: Frank van Steenbergen is Water Resources Director at MetaMeta, a private research and development firm based in the Netherlands. He’s worked on political and technical water issues in Yemen for the past 15 years.

VAN STEENBERGEN: But if you have groundwater it’s like you have a huge bank account, which is built up over many years, but you can…use much more annually than you put back into your account.

DIPIERRO: Hydrologists call this process – “putting money back into the bank account” – recharge. Since the 1970s, when the government subsidized diesel and offered other incentives for farmers to grow food for exports, new irrigation techniques have depleted groundwater without giving it a chance to “recharge” fully. Experts estimate that up to 90% of Yemen’s water goes to farming – not food staples, but water intensive crops like grapes and qat, a popular, mild, and highly profitable narcotic that Van Steenbergen compares to coffee.

Because building an irrigation system or a well is so expensive, in the 70s, groundwater was often controlled by the wealthy and powerful. There are now about 100,000 wells in Yemen, but Yemen’s former Minister of Agriculture, Nasser Al-Awlaki, says inequality persists.

NASSER AL-AWLAKI: We have an equity problem. The poor is paying a lot of money for water, and if they want to get water, they have to buy it from the rich people who own the wells.

DIPIERRO: Even in the North, where qat is usually grown and strong tribal affiliations translate into better access to water, the resource can be so scarce that disputes over water rights lead to violence.

JESSICA BARRY: When water resources are scarce, this can also create local competition for water.

DIPIERRO: Jessica Barry is the Communications Coordinator and spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross in San’aa, Yemen.

BARRY: There have been over the last few years a number of really rather serious clashes between not only local tribes, but between different political parties or different military parties. …it has resulted in very large displacement of communities.

DIPIERRO: Down along the coasts, van Steenbergen says, already impoverished communities are forced to migrate because of water shortages. Leaving behind their farms and villages to live in cities, poverty, unemployment, and overcrowding follow them.

VAN STEENBERGEN: Basically, the people who were affected were poor people, with very little political standing, yeah, and often a very limited understanding of what was happening. So – sad, but true – they’ve just left their villages.

DIPIERRO: Where can you find a solution to water scarcity if the starting point is so complex? Mark Jansson manages the Federation of American Scientists’ International Science Partnership, a project in which scientists from the United States and Yemen collaborate to solve water and energy issues. He says he knows where not to start.

MARK JANSSON: Ultimately, I’d say it’s a little condescending to sort of conflate U.S. National Security priorities such as combatting terrorism with the human need for water.

DIPIERRO: The instinct in Washington, DC, he says, is to put water on the national security agenda. That category would start a domino effect, mobilizing a bureaucracy of counterterror experts armed with security solutions. But making water a national security issue is a double-edged sword.

JANSSON: Securitizing the issue is one way to sort of focus the government’s attention on a policy priority. But I would say we should be very careful about breezily associating water security with the war on terror. Our ability to meet challenges with Yemenis in a shared fashion is really predicated in large part on separation of that work from counterterrorism and other national security efforts the United States is involved in.

AL-AWLAKI: Unfortunately, the American government after the 1990s, they somehow disappeared from the scene regarding the water issues in Yemen.

DIPIERRO: Al-Awlaki, Yemen’s former Minister of Agriculture.

AL-AWLAKI: After the Gulf War in 1991, they stopped completely their aid to Yemen, and this time they came, but they were only much concerned about security issues, giving government ammunition and logistical support to fight so-called terrorism.

DIPIERRO: This is exactly the concept of American aid in Yemen Jansson wants to change by having American and Yemeni scientists collaborate on issues other than counterterror. Barry at the Red Cross agrees that it’s crucial to work together, but Yemenis must take the lead in solving the humanitarian problem of water crisis with humanitarian solutions.

BARRY: What is really important to keep in mind is that the communities are able to help themselves. Communities should be given the means to help themselves, and more importantly, they should be involved in the solutions to their own problems.

DIPIERRO: Van Steenbergen already sees evidence of Yemenis taking charge of their water. He says young farmer-leaders are interested in combining new technology for irrigation with ancient patterns of conservation. He says tribes have developed a way to mediate local disputes, preventing feuds within communities by having members of neighboring tribes raise complaints in local courts. If these community plans are sustainable, he says, they could point to solutions for water shortages elsewhere.

VAN STEENBERGEN: We should fight those groundwater crises where they occur. They will be a big global problem, so if we know how to deal with it in the hot spots, we’re doing the right thing.

DIPIERRO: Once, says Van Steenbergen, he asked a retired government official why scarce water went unaddressed by then-President Saleh. The official said one reason is that there are easier issues to face – like terrorism.

VAN STEENBERGEN: Because, he says, a) you get a lot of money to work on it and b) it’s not a big problem.

DIPIERRO: Yemen, today, is in crisis. Or rather, it is trying to balance water and food crises with a terror threat that can seem easier to handle by comparison. For War News Radio, I’m Amy DiPierro.

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