Yemen: Unfiltered Neoliberalism Exacerbated the Water Crisis: Part I.
Comment: In Yemen, a war-torn country for six years, water resources are drying up. Helen Lackner writes that climate change, population growth and poor agricultural policy are to blame.
Yemen’s water supply is well below the “absolute scarcity” on the Falkenmark scale. [Getty]
Yemen is currently plagued by a catastrophic six years of war and a major water crisis that will affect the viability of its people in the country long after the military conflict has ended.
Yemen’s current annual renewable water availability of 72 million square kilometers. This is below the 500m-square indicator for “absolute scarcity” on the internationally recognized Falkenmark scale and well below the FAO’s much higher “stress” marker.
As the population continues to grow at a rate of nearly 3% per year, water availability per capita is decreasing. In addition, Yemen’s water resources are also likely to be negatively impacted by climate change.
The objective situation is grim, and the neoliberal policies of the Ali Abdullah Saleh regime (1978-2011) and international development financiers have made it worse and increased inequality.
This article focuses on rural water use and, in particular, the role of agricultural policy in exacerbating water scarcity in the country.
“Explicit political decisions in support of diesel-powered pumps and pipe well drilling technology for irrigation have made it possible to produce water well above the sustainable level”
Like many other countries, Yemen uses 90% of its water in agriculture. About 70% of the population of Yemen live in rural areas, and more than half of the current population (30 million) derive a significant portion of their income from farming activities, including ranching and crop production.
This article does not cover domestic water supply as it is subject to numerous and complex extraction and distribution processes based on the source and type of water supply as well as the local social and political situation. These methods include individual property and community management strategies in rural areas as well as larger centralized systems in cities.
Three main factors explain the water scarcity in Yemen, all of which can be traced back directly or indirectly to human activity.
First, rapid population growth has increased demand, reducing the availability of water and land per capita for generations to levels well below self-sufficiency.
Second, climate change is manifested by increasingly violent and irregular rainfall and other phenomena that reduce water availability, particularly by limiting the replenishment of freshwater aquifers, as the loss of topsoil prevents the uptake of runoff, especially when terraces deteriorate due to lack of maintenance to have .
Thirdly, the explicit political decisions of political regimes in recent decades to support diesel-powered pumps and pipe well drilling for irrigation have enabled water production that is well above sustainable levels. This has led to the expansion of agricultural areas and thus to the further depletion of the aquifers.
Villages are being abandoned for lack of resources
The extent of water scarcity is not uniform across the country. Unfortunately, the areas with the highest population density are also the areas with the least available groundwater, whether from renewable or fossil aquifers.
In some of the most densely populated areas, such as the Sanaa and Saada basins, the water table has plummeted. In some areas, villages have been abandoned due to the total depletion of their water table.
If all of the Yemeni water is used for domestic use, the per capita availability would rise to 200 liters per day, significantly more than is needed or consumed in Europe (approx. 150 liters per capita per day). While it is both technically impossible and unrealistic to propose such a fundamental redistribution of water use, there is no doubt that the problem of water scarcity in Yemen has been exacerbated in recent decades by management policies that at best ignore the fundamental principle of direct human needs.
“Water scarcity has exacerbated conflicts between communities, especially between upstream and downstream”
Significant growth in irrigated areas
In the ten years before the ongoing war, Yemen used 30% more water annually than its renewable energy sources. At that time, Yemen was consuming 3.5 billion cubic meters (billion cubic meters) of water while its renewable supply was only 2.1 billion cubic meters. The 1.4 billion cubic meter shortage was met by water pumped from non-renewable fossil aquifers using modern technology. These numbers cover all types of water consumption.
Although rain field irrigation and flood irrigation also use water, the introduction of pump irrigation in the 20th century led to a major shortage.
Over the past three decades, both shallow and deep well irrigation due to pumping have contributed to the water crisis. The increase in well-irrigated land is impressive, from 37,000 hectares in the 1970s to over 400,000 hectares in the 2000s.
Over the same period when irrigated land increased by a factor of 15, rainfed agriculture declined by 30% in a country where only about 3% of the land, including pasture land, is arable. According to the 2002 Agriculture Census, 25% of the 1.6 million hectares of farmland were irrigated by wells, with the data making no distinction between shallow and deep wells. This was at the expense of the sustainability of the aquifers and exacerbated social inequality, which explains both the worsening water and political crises.
Water scarcity has exacerbated conflicts between communities, particularly between upstream and downstream communities where increased use of the former has deprived the latter. As shallow wells dry up due to deep well extraction by wealthier neighbors, smallholders become impoverished and eventually have to sell their land.
The land distribution is extremely skewed: Of the 1.2 million landowners in Yemen, 58% owned a total of 8% of the arable land on holdings of less than 0.5 hectares, while only 7% of the owners owned 56% of the land on holdings of more than 5 hectares Hectares controlled.
Deep wells drawn from non-renewable fossil aquifers are one of the main culprits in reducing water availability. These wells are mostly operated by the few larger landowners who grow high quality crops such as qat, mangoes and bananas, the latter two of which are mainly for export. The areas for these crops have expanded enormously over the past three decades at the expense of crops and pastureland. This has been promoted regardless of sustainability, both in terms of general environmental issues and in terms of basic population access to water for domestic use.
This is Part I. Read Part II here.
Helen Lackner is an independent researcher who worked and lived in Yemen for over fifteen years, five of them in the RDPY between 1977 and 1982. She has just studied Yemen in Crisis, Autocracy, Neo-Liberalism and the Disintegration of a State (Saqi, 2017) .
This article was originally published by our partners at OrientXXI.
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The opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The New Arab, its editorial staff, or its collaborators.