This is an OPINION page. [Archives:1997/40/Focus]

October 6 1997

Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue! The Water Crisis of Yemen: Sizing the Problem, Offering Solutions
The Consultative Council has initiated an extensive series of hearings on the water problem of Yemen. Yemen is not only one of the most water-scarce nations of the world, it is also one that incurs the highest depletion rates in the world. That is the problem or rather crisis which the Consultative Council is trying to address. Let me shed some light on this matter, and then offer some insights and solutions.

1. Facts & Numbers: The quantity of annually replenished and renewable water supply in Yemen is around 2.1-2.5 billion cubic meters. This renders an average of 130 cubic meters per person. To get a feel for the low nature of this number, one has to remember that the annual average replenishable water supply in the Middle East region, itself already an arid area, is 1250 cubic meters per person. This is almost tenfold the volume for Yemen. Let us take the comparison to the world level. The average replenishable water supply in the world is 7500 cubic meters per person. In other words, 58 fold the average for Yemen. There is an additional problem. The crisis is getting worse. At this moment, there are over 45,000 wells pumping water from the underground reservoirs, which have taken centuries to build. Moreover, there are 200 drilling wells busy at work making more holes. Given that the underground reservoirs hold some 21 billion cubic meters, the last drop of water will be pumped out within a maximum of forty years, at the current rate of depletion. What happens then, is anybody’s guess. The deficit between what is extracted and what is replenished in 1990 was 700 million cubic meters. By the year 2010, it will exceed 1,200 million cubic meters.
2.Problem Manifestations: There are many ways in which the problem manifests itself. Let us put them in 3 categories: a) Depletion of Underground Reservoirs: i- The problem is clearly seen in the falling level of the underground water reservoirs. ii- The rising cost of water supply is a clear indicator of the deteriorating imbalance between supply and demand. iii- The salination and pollution of underground water. This is because sea water or sewer water creeps into the drinking water basins.
b) Unavailability of Water: When there is a water problem, either populations have to be moved closer to sources of water supply, or water has to be moved to population settlements. Both are costly, and for Yemen, beyond reach. Already some urban centers are unable to get minimally adequate water supply. Taiz city residents, for example, receive water supply once a month. The situation in Sanaa and Sa’adah is reaching crisis conditions.
c) General Inadequacy of Water Supply: In the Republic of Yemen, less than 60% receive potable water supplies. In the countryside, water supply is a more serious problem. The pervasive use of pesticides and the improper sewer drainage system have negatively affected the quality of underground water basins.
3. The Causes! There are many reasons why this problem has grown out of control. Some of the causes include: a) Technologies: – One of the main causes of this crisis is the introduction of modern technologies in extracting underground water. This has resulted in an enormous level of well drilling. – At the same time, the water-effective use is low. Farmers still use old ways of irrigation. Some experts believe up to 60% of the irrigation water is lost.
b) Higher Demand: – The 3.6% annual population growth has put a serious burden on water demand. This is especially true because water consumption patterns have changed to the worse. – Another reason for higher demand is the change in farm products. Yemeni farmers have shifted to cash-crops, which although yielding higher returns to the farmers, also require more irrigation. Qat growing is a case in point. – Of course, the growth in land under cultivation, an average of 6.5% per annum, also leads to higher demand.
c) Economic Factors: There are also economic reasons for the crisis. These include: – Water is badly underpriced. The government sector, NWSA, charges between YR 7-40 per cubic meter. The rate the private sector charges is several times that level. – Diesel used in pumping of water is also subsidized. This has allowed farmers to be less careful with their pumping. – The government offers easy and soft credit is made available to farmers who drill water wells. This has encouraged drilling.
4. What Needs to Be Done! There are many steps that need to be taken. I will categorize them them into immediate steps, and long-term ones, as follows:
a) Immediate Steps: – More detailed studies are needed regarding the consumption patterns and possible alternative supply sources. – NWSA will have to be brought to shape in terms of pricing and other decisions. – The required legislation will have to be passed and enforced. – Stopping any more well drilling unless it is for highly exceptional cases. – Halting the importation of drilling equipment. – Correcting price distortions whether for water or inputs in drilling, pumping, etc.
b) Long-Term Steps: In the longer term, it is important to do the following: – Raise awareness among consumers regarding the finite nature of the underground water supply. – Help farmers shift to more efficient use of irrigation. – Find ways to introduce water recycling.
5. Is the Decision Making Mechanism There In general, the objective is to preserve water for the generations to come. The point is that there is a gap between our resources and our needs. Let us ask a daring question, “Are we able to solve this problem? Does the political will exist to prohibit the deterioration in the water situation? Can we correct it?” Does the system have the decision-making mechanism to solve this problem? What has the National Water Resources Authority (NWRA) done after one year of existence? The basic point is that there will always be water, but the question is at what cost. How will a poor population pay? Carrying water to the urban centers requires implementing costly projects. We in NWRA are concerned with the fact that water is misused at this stage. However, even now people complain that the water supply is inadequate. Most of the water pumped out (up to 90%) is used for irrigation,. This has to change. Our comparative advantage, and given the costly nature of water, we should limit its use to drinking and for household uses. Secondly, the crops being grown now, are not necessarily the result of one of the most effective uses of water. This has to change. Much water is lost in the transport process, whether it is due to evaporation from open irrigation channels of farmers, or leakage from water supply pipe networks. Users have to be instructed and advised on how to use water properly. What we need is more awareness in this sphere. The government should take a decision to elevate the water issue to the highest priority of its strategy. We should achieve a water balance and use it only in relation to the level of replenishment. Our task is to bring sense to the water situation. This cannot be done by government decision alone. A visible level of political will is necessary but the public should be made aware of the consequences, and the citizens must becomes partners in resolving this matter. Much depends on how much success is achieved in this endeavor.
Jamal Mohammed Abdo is the Chairman of NWRA.