In Yemen, Water’s Role in the War on TerrorMarch 27, 2009 By Will Rogers
“Sana’a might very well become the first capital in the world to run out of water,” write Gregory D. Johnsen and Christopher Boucek in a February 2009 article in Foreign Policy. With massive population growth, rapidly shrinking freshwater availability, and weak governance, Yemen’s unsustainable water management policies are exacerbating the threat of international terrorism as the state devolves into a sanctuary for al Qaeda jihadists and other transnational criminals.
Today, Yemen is among the world’s most water-scarce countries. According to the most recent data collected in 2005, Yemen’s freshwater availability has dropped to a mere 186 cubic meters per capita per year – well below the international water poverty line of 1,000 cubic meters per capita per year. Below that, water begins to severely limit “economic development and human health and well-being.”
And since the latest data collection, according to Johnsen and Boucek, overexploitation of groundwater aquifers to satisfy a burgeoning population has resulted in “dramatically falling water tables—up to several meters per year in some places.”
To make matters worse, an annual population growth rate of 3.2 percent, driven by a total fertility rate of 6.2 children per woman, means the population will grow from 22.2 million today to 35.2 million by 2050, putting further pressure on an already-scarce resource.
In Yemen, the “lack of any serious legal oversight, reckless irrigation techniques, and unregulated private exploitation” are clear indicators of poor governance. Nevertheless, the government has begun working with the World Bank to implement an integrated water management program. “Support for the water sector is receiving high priority,” said Nabil Shaiban of Yemen’s Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation, in an interview with IRIN News.
But despite these efforts, the government’s weakness and the country’s “gun-slinging tribal culture” present serious challenges to water management. According to IRIN News, “tribesmen seize control of water projects nearing completion, intending to use them for irrigating their farms.” This occurs with about “80 percent of projects in rural areas,” Ahmed al-Sufi, an information officer with Yemen’s National Water and Sanitation Foundation, told IRIN News.
And so the problems of poor water management and weak governance are circular. As water scarcity worsens, the government’s attempts to mitigate it are undermined by its weak control over the state. But without successful policies to mitigate water scarcity, the government’s legitimacy is further weakened.
With water woes aggravating Yemeni citizens and weakening the government’s authority, al Qaeda and other transnational terror groups are recruiting jihadists and using ungoverned areas as training grounds and safe havens. Forty-five percent of Yemen’s population is under 15 years old—and some claim al Qaeda is now actively recruiting boys as young as 12. With water scarcity worsening economic and human development, Yemen’s youth are particularly susceptible to al Qaeda’s promises of social justice and opportunities for advancement.
Al Qaeda recently made its capabilities in Yemen clear with a September 18, 2008, attack against the U.S. embassy in Sana’a. Several car bombs and rocket-propelled grenades killed 16 people—the deadliest attack against a U.S. target in Yemen since the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000. According to The Economist, last March “al Qaeda websites posted a message advising members to head for Yemen.”
To be clear, water scarcity is not the only issue plaguing the Gulf state. Falling oil prices and mismanaged oil reserves are making Yemen’s chronic economic and human development problems much worse. But assistance from the international community in implementing effective water-management policies would lend credibility to the government and could bolster its ability to prevent al Qaeda from training terrorists within its borders.
According to the U.S. Army field manual on stability operations, “The greatest threats to our national security will not come from emerging ambitious states but from nations unable or unwilling to meet the basic needs and aspirations of their people.” If Yemen’s government cannot provide even a minimal level of water security for its citizens, it risks becoming a failed state on par with Somalia or Zimbabwe.
Over the long term, a comprehensive approach to development that balances voluntary family planning with effective natural resource management would help reduce pressure on scarce resources and bring lasting stability to the country, while serving U.S. national security interests in the War on Terror.
Photo: In Taiz, south of the capital city of Sana’a, children fill up their water jugs outside a mosque. Courtesy of flickr user Osama Al-Eryani.