Article paru dans le magazine Yemen Today, janvier 2011.
For the first time ever, Yemen holds over the week end a national conference on water, an opportunity to understand: How did we get here and what can we do?
Fourteen years. This is the time remaining before the Yemeni capital Sana’a runs out of water. The clock is also ticking for the rest of the country. Indicators of water shortage can be seen throughout the country. Sana’a, for example, receives water just once a week, while in Taiz, the water supply comes only once every twenty-four days.
Due to this scarce water delivery, many resort to other means to supply their households with water, such as truck delivery. “[Truck delivery] covers 60% of the needs of Sana’a’s population,” notes Abdulwahab al-Mujahed, head of the Water and Environment Unit at the Social Fund for Development, “it’s easy, you call a number and ask for water. It arrives a few hours later by trucks that pump the water from the outskirts of Sana’a. Different companies offer this kind of service, some families even share a truck sometimes. It’s legal but the water is two times more expensive than the water provided by the government.”
Another indicator of the water crisis is the level of aquifers, underground layers of permeable rock, sediment, or soil that yields water. Of the twenty-one aquifers existing in Yemen, nineteen are over-exploited. The average of the draw down can reach seven meters per year, according to a report on Water Resources Information in Yemen conducted by Engineer Qahtan al-Abashi for a UNDP program.
Furthermore, in Yemen, the annual per capita water availability is only 200 cubic meters, well below the international water scarcity threshold of 1,700 cubic meters. The country is one of the four in the world to have been designated water short. “It is one of the most water-scare countries in the world,” the World Bank stated in 2005.
The easiest way to explain the situation would be to point out the scarcity of the essential “blue gold” in the country. But al-Mujahed says this is not the real problem. “The water crisis is a management problem, not a water shortage problem. First you have to manage what you have and then you can say you have a water shortage. Until now, we have not managed what we have,” he explains. He emphasizes that Yemen does have water. Ocean surrounds the country in the west and the south and Hadhramaut encloses a water reserve that could cover the demand with the existing consumption for a hundred years.
Moreover, the geography of the country is suitable for dams that can supply water in the regions where the first layer of the ground is made with impervious rock which does not allow rainwater to get into the ground. al-Mujahed points to the example of al-Baeda- “There are dams in this region but quite far from houses and the government has never been able to build a pipeline! The people kept dreaming for years of water. Now the Social Fund for Development has the project to build facilities that will enable them to carry the water from the dams to the houses, covering 10,000 households.”
According to the engineer, to understand the water crisis in Yemen, we have to look back to the 1970s. “At that time, communities were depending on their own resources so they adopted techniques within their capacities, but then the government stepped in and adopted water options that are far beyond the capabilities of local communities with 100% subsidies which led to complete reliance on the government. Many changes resulted from this decision, causing the water shortage we have today,” elaborates Mr. al-Mujahed.
“Coffin of Cities”
Attracted by new job opportunities in the cities, people started to emigrate to urban areas, leaving behind the terraces in more rural areas, which are one of the most efficient ways to recharge the ground water. In response to the expansion of cities, new buildings and roads were constructed. This led to the need to put asphalt over the leaching pits, which are holes in the ground with a diameter of four meters that go deep below twenty meters into the ground, and help the water to penetrate into the soil and recharge the groundwater. “Some people call these constructions the ‘coffin of cities’ as they lead to their death. Without water you can’t live!” Abdulwahab al-Mujahed said.
The change of lifestyle also contributed to abandoning the dry toilets where human feces were separated, dried and used as fertilizer in favor of modern toilets that use at least ten liters of water per flush. Traditional building materials like sand, stone, and mud have been replaced by cement and concrete, on which you need to splash water twice a day when building with them.
Also, it is impossible to look at Yemen’s water crisis without acknowledging the harmful effects of mass qat cultivation, which has played a big role in the depletion of water resources. According to the National Water Sector Strategy and Investment Program (NWISS), “Qat occupied at least half of the irrigated area in Yemen, growing at an annual rate of 9%, double the rate of other crops.”
All these factors contribute to the over-exploitation of the groundwater. In the Sana’a basin, for example, the amount extracted is four times the amount that is replenished. Nowadays, Yemen relies almost exclusively on exploitation of groundwater to supply the communities. Since the revolution, the government has not recognized rainwater as an alternative to provide communities with water, although the country has traditionally depended on this source. The government has claimed that groundwater gives higher quality water.
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