Water Crisis in Yemen Towards a Comprehensive Strategy [Archives:1998/02/Business & Economy]

January 12 1998

By: Aneesa Ghanim

The Problem Water scarcity in Yemen is the most pressing problem facing our people today. Its dark clouds have been gathering for the last two or three decades. Yemen’s total annually renewed water resources are estimated at 2.1 billion cubic meter (BCM). With a population of around 14 million, available resources amount to little more than 150 m3 per person each year. This compares with the Middle East and North Africa average of 1,250 m3 and worldwide average of 7,550 m3. According to worldwide norms, domestic use alone requires up to 100 m3 per person per year and food self-sufficiency requires 1,000 m3. In 1994, water use was estimated at about 2.8 BCM. The country thus overdrew its resources of 2.1 BCM by 0.7 BCM. In general, all surface water resources in Yemen are harnessed and exploited, and in most areas groundwater is already being exploited beyond the level of recharge. It is estimated that there are more than 45,000 private wells in the country. The government’s sporadic attempts to license and control wells and drilling rigs have not been successful. In the densely populated highland valleys and plains, the situation is very bad. In the Sana’a basin, where about 10% of the population live, water usage in 1994 was 224 million cubic meters (MCM), recharge was 42 MCM i.e., an overdraft of 400%. If the current trend of water exploitation persists, underground water reserves in Sana’a will be completely depleted with the next ten years. The only exception is Hadhramaut. Recent assessments have revealed water reserves that could be as much as 280 MCM of annual recharge, together with vast storage, equivalent to several thousand years of supply at the current rates of use in that area. Water scarcity is threatening the very existence of rural economy. Agriculture supports 70% of the population and produces 18% of the GDP. Ground water is being mined at such a rate that large parts of the rural economy could disappear within a generation. For example, unregulated usage and sale of underground water has completely depleted the Wadi Bani Khawlan water reserves near Taiz. This has caused a drought, and put an end to agriculture in that area. During the summer of 1995, people in Taiz experienced the worst water shortages for years. Water was piped to consumers once every forty days. Water reserves in Wadi Heima which supplies Taiz are certainly going down.
The Causes The rapid population growth has put increasing demands on the already stretched water resources. The overpumping of water is leading to a rapid depletion of Yemen’s aquifers. In no country in the world is the rate of exhaustion of aquifers getting out of hand as in Yemen. From among other countries suffering from water scarcity, Yemen stands out because of the lack of a control structure that would allow anything approaching a real solution to be simply imposed from the top. The use of modern drilling and water pumping methods has not helped matters either. Cheap diesel – a quarter of international prices, subsidized electricity supply, and international and local funding for farmers to buy water pumps has helped drastically increase overpumping water consumption. Deforestation, the abandoning of terraces and of traditional water harvesting systems and the consequent degradation have provoked widespread soil erosion.Which increases the risk of floods and the reduced recharge of aquifers. The government’s urban water body – the National Water and Sanitation Authority (NWSA) has not done well. Its internal efficiency indicators are unfavorable. The General Authority for Rural Electricity and Water (GAREW) has not been effective in reaching rural communities. There is a heavy concentration of its activities in a few areas – 80% in the governorate of Sana’a alone. Schemes were started but ran out of money and the sustainability of completed schemes is poor. Other public institutions have fared no better.
The Disadvantaged Nationwide, about 60% of urban households are estimated to be connected to the main supply, which is often inadequate. In Sana’a, NWSA supplies only 365 households with water. The urban poor are faced with higher costs. Although NWSA-supplied water is cheap, poor people usually have to buy their water from private vendors at very high prices. In Sana’a, for example, those buying from the private sector exclusively consume only 28 liters per day, as opposed to 80 liters per day for those connected to the NWSA system. (WHO recommended minimum is 180 liters per day. ) The negative impact of inadequate water supplies on the poor is even more marked in rural areas.
Health Risks Many people in rural and urban areas, especially those with limited means do not get clean water. About two-thirds of the water consumed in towns and cities around the country come from unsafe sources such as the sewage-contaminated wells. Failing to provide a decent sewage disposal system has resulted in various health and environmental hazards. The increase in infant mortality due to diarrhea and dehydration is largely attributed to sewage-contaminated water. Public water projects have so far concentrated on urban centers and their surrounding rural areas, seldom in remote villages. Population growth puts an added burden on the already dwindling water resources. Demand on water for both human consumption and irrigation is rapidly increasing. Spiraling qat farming is the major cause of the rapid water depletion in Yemen, further exacerbating the crisis.
Economic Costs The economic consequences of the water crisis are likely to be very severe. Supply costs will rise sharply as water must be found further and deeper. In Sana’a, the options now explored for the next source of supply all cost over $1 per m3. The current cost of water is YR7 per m3 through the public supply system or YR50-200 per m3 from private vendors. Drilling for new groundwater sources for Sana’a has taken place to a depth of over 2 km. The ultimate option for the capital is desalination and transport from the coast, which is estimated to cost up to $6.60 per m3. Already, shortages of water are constraining urban and industrial development. In Sana’a, the NWSA is unable to keep pace with new housing establishment and industrial development, which are obliged to buy water from private sources at high prices.
Objectives Yemen has not yet adopted a national water policy. Development objectives, when formulated by the government, are not necessarily coherent or stable. Reforms must take place that will return water towards sustainability, as full sustainability is not achievable. The challenge is to put the decisions in a rational framework and be capable of dealing with the ultimate consequences of depletion. This will require action to slow down the rate of depletion. The main efforts must be channeled in the most severely affected areas and in areas key to aquifer recharge. With the growing water shortage, competition has arisen between town and country over water resources. In some cases this has been resolved through the market, but at risk to the resource itself. In other cases, the government had simply appropriated water in a way seen as unfair by rural people. A workable legal and planning framework is needed to allow a sustainable flow of water to cities in a way acceptable to both rural and urban dwellers. The low water coverage of the population has certain impacts on health and poverty, as mentioned earlier. The government has plans to increase coverage, and the challenge is to ensure that this is done in an affordable and sustainable way. In urban areas, the existence of a lively private sector is an asset to be developed. In rural areas, community involvement is already strong, and this can provide a pointer to a future strategy.
Efficiency Prices The government is able to send powerful signals through the pricing system. The challenge is to remove all the distortions and incentives that have led to overpumping of groundwater. In effect, it is to change relative prices to discourage groundwater use. The agenda might include introducing higher prices for diesel, levying higher tariffs and taxes on pumping equipment, eliminating credit subsidies for pumps, and removing current incentives (such as import controls) to the production of water intensive products, notably qat.
National Debate Change in the water sector, particularly in the cost of water or in the amount of water used, would be an intensely difficult and unpopular agenda among many people. Only if there is a nationwide recognition of the nature of the crisis and a significant national commitment to tackling it can there be hope that the needed tough solutions can be adopted and implemented.
Act on Qat Qat is the most important crop in Yemen and the country’s greatest consumer of water. It cannot be ignored. The government should include qat in its statistics and make it an object of research in order to exploit all water-saving potentials and support a long-term education and public awareness campaign on qat.
Reorient Public Expenditures First, adequate resources must be allocated to sector management, to water conservation in agriculture and to participatory approaches to water management. Second, major investments in improving access to safe water in town and countryside are needed. These resources should also support improved management, e.g. decentralized or privatized management in the NWSA. Third, the current inequities implicit in public spending should be eliminated. These include credit schemes for well owners, upstream development of dams that take from downstream, and the skew in public water authorities towards certain areas to the detriment of others.
Delivering the Solutions * A comprehensive strategy is vital. * The challenge is to bring about a major adjustment in the behavior and the economy of the nation. * Consensus building at two levels is needed. One level is a national debate with key stakeholders and decision makers in order to bring about change. The second level of consensus building is amongst the population at large. * The process has to lead to decisions and actions early on. * NGOs and community groups should be encouraged to play a role. * Donor coordination and partnership should be developed. * A top/bottom partnership should be promoted between central or regional agencies and communities in the sustainable management of the resources. * Strategic investments should play a key role both in relieving supply problems and in advancing the policy agenda. * Institutions should be developed with emphasis on resource monitoring and planning, public awareness and participation.
Conclusion Of the innovations proposed to address the crisis, four stand out. First, national debate and consensus is like mobilizing a nation for war, which in a sense it is. Second, prioritization which requires a definite rigor in identifying the real problems and the realistic solutions. Third, the reliance on the indigenous private sector and local water markets has to be made in a way so as to improve quality, price, and conserve the resource. Fourth, building on the nation’s traditions and common sense to stop the exhaustive mining of water is the most attractive of all solutions. _______
* (abridged from World Bank report)