I recently traveled with the French Red Cross to a rural region of Yemen to see the water distribution projects they are helping to build there (see the audio slide show above.)
In nearly every news story about Yemen, the author is forced to go through the laundry list of Yemen's problems. Usually toward the end of the list is the brief mention that a water crisis threatens Yemen's long-term stability.
Indeed, Yemen's water problems may be the most threatening long-term problem on the list, and the issue has gotten some well-deserved attention from the international press, including a story last fall by my project partner Haley Sweetland Edwards. But environmental problems don't always make for exciting news stories, and amongst the plethora of threats to Yemen's stability, the water crisis is often lost in the background.
Water resources are being rapidly depleted in many countries around the world, including the western United States, and access to clean water is a common problem through out the developing world. But even in the context of worldwide fresh water depletion, Yemen's crisis is staggering: Yemenis use about a fifth of the amount of water recommended by the World Health Organization for healthy and hygienic living; the capital, Sana'a, may be the first world capital to run out of its own water supplies; and thousand-meter wells have recently been drilled in the country's highlands to get at so-called "fossil water." Yemen is the fastest growing country in the region, and one of the most rapidly urbanizing populations in the world, and it seems clear that the resources of the country simply can't supply its burgeoning population of 23 million beyond the current generation.
The problem is huge, and it can be hard to wrap one's mind around it. As with many environmental and resource depletion issues, it's hard to see exactly what's happening until it's too late. But anyone who spends some amount of time in Yemen sees pretty clearly the daily impact that the lack of water has on people. Tanker trucks trundle down the streets of the cities carrying groundwater from deep wells drilled in the countryside; families use and reuse water for washing three or four times, and children wander the streets with buckets of water collected from the publics spigots of mosques. On a drive through the mountainous countryside at anytime of day, but especially in the morning, you see dozens of women and children walking down the main roads with donkeys and cans, on their way to find water, and you must imagine the hundreds of thousands of people across the country that spend hours each day on the same search.
Some of the causes are equally clear. Inefficient agricultural practices are a main culprit, and the cultivation of the mild narcotic qat often gets the most blame. A government diesel subsidy makes pumping groundwater artificially cheap, and the lack of any real regulations on wells means that the water disappears faster than anyone can even keep track of it.
Alleviating some of the stress on Yemen's water resources would be fairly straight forward, but despite the warning signs of a crisis, leadership is lacking. Foreign aid workers complain that despite dire warnings, millions of dollars in aid, and recommendations from countless experts, too little is being done to avert the catastrophe of a Yemen without groundwater. As one foreign water expert put it to me, there won't be an hour, or a day or even a year when Yemen runs out of water; it won't be a headline-making disaster, but it will be disastrous.