Cistern collecting water in Hayfan

Tomorrow morning I will be giving a presentation at USAID in Washington on the development problems surrounding water resources in Yemen. As almost anyone involved in Yemen’s development knows, the country is rapidly running out of water. The handwriting has been on the wall for some time now, as the following quotes show:

“In general, the cultivators make good use of the water available. What is mostly needed is an increase in supply.” FAO Mission to Yemen, 1955

“Water is the limiting factor in most of the Yemen development projects.” Water Resources Sector Study in the YAR, USAID, 1977

“Water is a scarce resource in Yemen; there is not enough to satisfy present and potential demand.” Water Policy Initiatives for Yemen, CID for USAID, 1980

“… available information indicates that groundwater has been severely overdeveloped.” Irrigation Sector Study, World Bank, 1980

How did this happen? The historical trajectory is relatively simple to trace, and it is not unique to Yemen. In three decades the country has increased in population from about 6 million to around 23 million people with one of the highest growth ratios (at 3.46%) anywhere. At the same time a predominantly rural society has seen massive shift from subsistence farming to service sector jobs in urban areas, putting pressure on the limited public services that provide water supply and sanitation. Over the past three decades there has been little coordination between the various government ministries and agencies responsible in some way for water. Thus, the country now has as many 55,000 tubewells, the vast majority of which have never been licensed. Aquifers are being drained beyond recharge and the fossil water gets deeper and deeper and more expensive to pump out.

Efforts are underway to make the public aware of the immanent danger in overuse of water. There is a very nice Arabic-language video produced by the National Water Resource Authority and available on YouTube. Remember the old adage about the glass being half full or half empty. Well, for Yemen the water supply is running near empty.

Daniel Martin Varisco