Yemen’s Water Crisis: Solution Critical for Yemen’s Future [Archives:2001/41/Health]

October 8 2001

Christopher Ward*
Since the beginning of time, Yemenis have been adept at making the best use of scarce water through technology and attentive farming. Their terraces, elaborate water harvesting structures, and skilful management of springs and flood flows, allowed the county to support a large population and a sustainable agricultural economy.
Since the creation of the modern state however, the country has fallen into a water crisis characterized by very rapid mining of groundwater, extreme water supply shortages in the major cities, and limited access to safe drinking water. The main causes of the crisis include rising demand for water as the population grows and market-led agriculture develops; the unregulated exploitation of efficient use and sustainable management. These problems are by no means unique to Yemen, but in no other county in the Middle East is the rate of exhaustion of aquifers proceeding so fast; no other capital city, for example, faces the dire prospect of running our of water within the next decade.
Yemen’s total annually renewable water resources are estimated at 2.5 billion cubic meters (cm). Thus with a population of around 18 million, these amount to little more than 140 cm per person each year, compared with the Middle East and North Africa average of 1.250 cm per person. The problem in Yemen is made more critical given that water resources are unevenly distributed and that 90% of the population has under 90 cm annually for domestic uses (10% below the world-wide norm). It is estimated that only 44% of the population has access to main water supplies and only 12% to safe sanitation. In general, all surface water resources, (60% of the country’s renewable resources), is already being exploited beyond the level of renewal. This very rapid development has brought with it major problems. Groundwater is being mined at such a rate that parts of the rural economy could dry up in the country. Areas of the country under the greatest pressure are the central highlands, western escarpment and coastal plains.
It was estimated in the mid-1990s that a water extraction level of 224 million cm was expected to be pumped dry in the Sana’a basin of the coastal plains within the next decade; in Amran, within the last five years. Meanwhile by 2005, consumer demand in the country is expected to rise to 3.42 billion cm, posing a shortfall of 920 million cm.
Causes of the Crisis
Since the 1970s, Yemen has witnessed rapid social and economic changes, often outpacing the government’s ability to control or manage them. Many of these changes have had a profound effect on the country’s water use. In the last twenty years the population has doubled, and Yemen has experienced one of the highest rates of population increase in the world (3.5%). Additionally, demographic changes have increased the demand for water and for commodities whose production requires water, particularly agricultural produce. With the flow of remittances form Yemenis working in nearby oil-exporting countries, and the growth of various market opportunities, agriculture developed rapidly. The advent of tractors, chemical inputs and especially tubewell technology, weaned Yemen away from the traditional farming practices and systems of water management which had previously enabled the country to live in balance with its natural resources. The government has lacked the technical means, the legal instruments, and the political will to regulate the sinking of wells and groundwater extraction. At the same time it pursued policies that encouraged water use, the government also pursued low-interest loans, cheap diesel pricing, and public investment in surface or spare irrigation. As a result, over the past two decades, groundwater and surface irrigation have been priced well below their economic cost. A government ban on the import of fruit and vegetables gave further impetus to groundwater development by making local cultivation of such produce far more profitable. Finally, the government’s supportive attitude towards the booming production and use of qat, the country’s most profitable cash crop, has accelerated trends towards the overuse of water. Qat is estimated to consume 30% of all irrigation water, and its cultivation has been encouraged by a government ban on imports of cheaper Ethiopian Qat.
Between 1970 and 1996, areas irrigated formed wells that expanded from 37.000 to 360.000 hectares, 32% of Yemen’s farmed land. Today groundwater extraction has passed well beyond the limit of sustainability. Aquifers are being depleted throughout the country, wells are constantly being deepened, and the costs are rising while water yields and quality are deteriorating. Additionally, the explosion of groundwater use has often been at the expense of traditional spring-fed systems, and as the water table declines, hill springs are early casualties. On farms, low groundwater prices have encouraged waste. Meanwhile, deforestation, the abandonment of terraces and the neglect of traditional water harvesting systems, as led to aquifers (partly due to the government’s policy of importing grain for distribution at heavily subsidized prices). Finally, the government, in partnership with international donors and development agencies, embarked on a number of large-scale, public sector spate irrigation schemes in the coastal plains–many of whose operation and maintenance it can no longer afford. Viewed internally, however, government policy has increased value food products, such as fruit and vegetables. As a result, incomes have increased been spread across a large segment of the population. Important interest groups have benefited, not least those involved in the multi-million dollar qat industry, helping the government to consolidate its authority. After 20 years of holding down irrigation water prices however, the government is now increasing them. Groundwater prices have been affected for example, as the price of diesel shot up between 1996-1999, from the equivalent of $0.02 to $0.10 per liter; and it is set to rise even further by 2001 to about $0.16 per liter. Meanwhile, the supply of cheap credit has dwindled, interest rates have increased, and controls on fruit and vegetable imports are being dismantled. All these actions will bring the price of groundwater closer to its economic cost. The government is considering the involvement of user groups in the operation and maintenance of spate irrigation schemes, with a view to ultimately hand them over to users to have full responsibility.
Impact of Structural Adjustment
For 20 years, with the support of international donors, the government was able to cultivate key constituencies with the cheap, to sometimes, free water. What has changed? First, Yemen has been grappling with a severe economic crisis. Since 1995, with the encouragement of international donors, the government has been implementing a structural adjustment program aimed at reducing the role of the state in economic activity. As a result, the diesel and credit subsidies for groundwater irrigation, the operation and maintenance subsidy for spate irrigation, and the distribution of subsidized cereals, are all being phased out. This is driving up water prices. Meanwhile, government officials have become increasingly concerned about environmental degradation, particularly groundwater depletion and damage to traditional rain-fed agriculture and terrace systems. Donors who had supported the old policies are now keen to promote sustainability, a reduced government role in the economy, and more participation at the community level. They are also encouraging the use of pricing mechanisms to manage water demand. Most farmers will benefit more, or suffer less, form investment in water conservation and irrigation efficiency. But better management involves visible and unpopular changes, such as price increases and regulation. And the devolution of power to user groups means that the government loses a source of patronage while running the risk of provoking social unrest and strengthening the centrifugal tendencies ever-present in Yemeni politics. In 1996 the government’s announcement of a tripling of diesel prices instigated violent demonstrations. Other price increases provoked further violence in 1998.
The Challenge
Yemen cannot continue to live off its water capital. But with the country’s fragmented geography and hydrology, and the predominance of dispersed rural water users, centralized control is problematic. Moreover, the mismatch between population and water resources reduces planning options as most of the population and economic activity is concentrated in the water-depleted western highlands. Such a situation makes it difficult to explore alternative sources of supply such as the Hadhramaut aquifer, let alone desalination. Growing water shortages have led to competition between town and country for access to dwindling resources. Since all groundwater around cities is effectively harnessed and over-exploited for agricultural use, the cost of new supplies of water for cities is likely to rise sharply, as water has to be brought from further afield and from greater depth. In Sana’a, the urban utility, the National Water and Sanitation Authority (NWSA), is unable to keep pace with new housing and industrial development. Taiz faces similar problems. There the city authorities negotiated for ten years with the nearby rural area of Habir before an agreement was reached. With support form the IDA-financed Taiz Pilot Water Supply Project, Taiz will be allowed to extract water from a previously untapped deep aquifer in exchange for investments in village water supply, schools and women’s centers, and the joint monitoring of water extraction to ensure a sustainable flow.
Water markets are already well established in Yemen, ranging form opportunistic tanker sales by well owners, to supply schemes for urban communities. Indeed, several towns (e.g. Zabid and Bajel) are wholly supplied by private sector utilities. But markets give no incentives to groundwater conservation. Steps need to be taken towards increasing main access and reducing costs.
The challenge facing the government is to bring about a major adjustment in the behavior and economy of this nation. This will require a level of national consensus and self-regulation which can only be achieved through public awareness campaigns, clear and realistic priorities, and through a close partnership with water users.
Meanwhile, the increase in water prices resulting from the removal of diesel subsidies, will encourage farmers to adopt water-efficient technologies, helping to relieve pressure on groundwater. The transfer of responsibility to local farmers for spate irrigation systems should also provide incentives for improved farming and sustainability. Similarly, a policy of renewed support for traditional water control systems has the potential to increase agricultural production and boost the incomes of small farmers. Nevertheless, decentralization and the partnership approach can only be viewed as depleting, allowing Yemen time to develop patterns of economic activity less dependent on water mining.
*Christopher Ward is Principal Operations Officer for the Middle East and North Africa in the Rural Development, Water and Environment Department of the World Bank. The following article draws on his lecture made to the society last September and on published material. This article appeared in British-Yemeni Society Journal