Overlooked in most news coverage of Yemen’s crisis is the country’s struggle to manage its limited natural resources – particularly its rapidly depleting groundwater – in the face of soaring population growth. At the recent Wilson Center event, “Yemen: Beyond the Headlines,” Yemen’s ambassador to Germany, Mohammed Al-Eryani, and Daniel Egel of the RAND Corporation outlined Yemen’s shaky prospects for economic development without more sustainable agricultural practices and more efficient water management. [Video Below]
With a population of more than 24 million and a total fertility rate (TFR) of 5.5 – nearly double the average TFR for the region – Yemen’s population is projected to grow to 36.7 million by 2025 and jump further to 61.6 million by mid-century, according to the latest UN projections. While those figures may not seem large by global standards, given Yemen’s already limited stocks of arable land and groundwater, the country’s rapid rate of growth may quickly outpace its resources.
“Already in a Crisis”: The Groundwater Deficit
Yemen’s per capita water supply is falling fast in the face of booming population growth and agricultural consumption, said Al-Eryani, a water engineer who founded Yemen’s Ministry of Water and the Environment. While the commonly accepted threshold for water scarcity is 1700 cubic meters or less per capita, Yemen’s per capita renewable water availability is now in the neighborhood of 120 cubic meters, he said.
Meanwhile, water scarcity has been exacerbated by erratic precipitation that has hit rainfall-dependent farmers especially hard. In a country with no real rivers or perennial streams, rainfall harvesting has long enabled agricultural production, as evidenced by the country’s many intricately terraced hillsides – “the food baskets of Yemen,” said Al-Eryani.
Yemenis have coped with shifting precipitation patterns by drawing more groundwater for irrigation and other domestic uses. While drilling wells has provided some short-term relief, the practice is unsustainable in the long term, creating a “water deficit,” Al-Eryani said, that continues to grow each year.
In the populous Sanaa basin, home to the Yemeni capital, consumption outweighs the aquifer’s natural rate of recharge by a factor of five to one and groundwater levels have been plummeting at six meters per year, he said. With only minimal government regulation of drilling, the country’s groundwater situation is poised to worsen, one of the reasons Al-Eryani declared his country is “already in a crisis.”
Stalled Economic Development
Yemen’s stalled economic development is particularly pronounced outside of urban areas, “where the resources are,” said Daniel Egel, citing the country’s failure to build modern transportation infrastructure and develop other economic activities besides farming. He called for the international development community to focus on creating jobs in rural areas, particularly by increasing the financing available for non-agricultural businesses and by improving secondary roads. In addition, he warned development actors to be aware of how gender inequality and local social structures, such as tribes, affect development efforts.
Given the country’s dependence on agriculture, water scarcity poses a threat to Yemen’s food security and its economic development. Three out of every four Yemeni villages depend on rainfall for irrigation, Egel said, making them highly vulnerable to unexpected climate change-induced shifts in precipitation patterns. Water scarcity also weakens the financial stability of Yemeni households, with the cost of water “accounting for about 10 percent of income during the dry season,” he said.
Averting a “Domino Effect”
Al-Eryani asserted that water management policies will “have to be designed in piecemeal fashion,” as no one single action will avert a catastrophe. He suggested a number of steps to alleviate the country’s growing water crunch, including:
Focus on the rural population, which makes up 70 percent of the population, has the highest fertility rates, and are the most reliant on agriculture;
Move development efforts outside of Sanaa to other regions of the country;
Increase investment in desalination technology for coastal areas;
Increase water conservation in the agricultural sector; and,
Exploit fossil groundwater aquifers in Yemen’s sparsely populated eastern reaches.
Unless such concrete steps are taken in the coming years, the outlook is grim. At current rates of usage, Al-Eryani predicted that the country’s groundwater reserves could be almost entirely depleted by 2025. With up to 55 percent of the workforce engaged in agriculture, the water situation threatens to be a “domino effect of a crisis that invites many other consequences and ramifications that are really overwhelming,” he said.
“The battle to strike a sustainable balance between population growth and sustainable water supplies was lost many years ago,” Al-Eryani said. “But maybe we can still win the war if we can undertake some of these measures.”