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Violence grows as scarcity bites

Shops outside main cities in Yemen still sell arms openly
(Adel Yahya/IRIN)

Violence over scarce land and water resources in Yemen claims more lives than rebellion, “terrorism” and secessionism combined, according to a new report.

Yemen is facing an increasingly violent secessionist movement in the south, a recurring insurgency in the north, and regular attacks against the government by the local Al-Qaeda affiliate, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. While these crises garner headlines and attract the attention of Western policymakers, social conflict over scarce resources may represent a more insidious long-term threat to the country, says the report Under Pressure: Social Violence over Land and Water in Yemen.

“Yemen is today faced with a large number of challenges,” Gavin Hales, the lead researcher for the report, told IRIN. “It is unfortunate that social violence over land and water has received relatively little attention despite the widespread impact it has on social and economic development for so many ordinary Yemenis, and the thousands of deaths it causes each year.”

Most such violence takes place in rural areas where the central government holds little sway, and claims the lives of over 4,000 people per year, according to the Ministry of Interior, a number which does not include the significant percentage of cases handled through tribal law.

Average land holdings are shrinking in the face of a high population growth rate of 3 percent a year; and the lack of a comprehensive, reliable system of land registration opens the door to protracted land disputes. Up to half of cases in the court system are land-related, many of which drag on for years, and the system is subject to extensive corruption, further undermining the government’s credibility. With little recourse to legal action, violence becomes an option when tribal mediation fails.


Yemen’s lack of water is potentially the most crippling crisis facing the country. Annual water availability per person is just 2 percent of the global average, and Sanaa is expected to be the first capital city in the world to run out of water. The root of modern conflict over water resources can be traced back to the 1970s, said Gerhard Lichtenthaeler, a consultant with the German Technical Corporation (GTZ), which works to mitigate water-related conflict.

Water disputes at that time were over surface water, but Yemenis returning from Saudi Arabia had been exposed to tube-well technology there, and began digging wells in Yemen. “This solved conflicts then because you had your own well on your own land. Until of course, 20 years later, when people realize that this water won’t last forever.” Today, the building of a new well, particularly on disputed land, can lead to tension between tribes.

Whether land and water scarcity are the source of conflict, or simply a spark set to underlying grievances, remains an open question. “Resource scarcity and resource management are indeed fundamental drivers of conflict in many areas,” said Hales.

“However, it is important to acknowledge that they interact with other grievances, such as revenge issues and political disaffection.” In 2009, “there were public protests in Lahj and Aden over interruptions to the municipal water supply, and of course these are interwoven with broader grievances,” he said, referring to southerners’ complaints of political and economic marginalization at the hands of the northern-dominated government.


Social violence in the impoverished republic is exacerbated by the widespread ownership of weapons. The oft-cited statistic claiming that there are 60 million guns in Yemen has been repeatedly debunked, but this report’s more realistic estimate of 11 million weapons, in a country of 23 million, nevertheless represents one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the world.

The constant presence of firearms means that resource-related conflict is more likely to turn deadly. “The Yemeni government has taken significant positive steps - since 2007 in particular - to curtail weapons carrying in urban areas and reduce the domestic arms market,” Hales said.

However, the central government’s lack of influence in rural areas makes enforcing similar laws outside cities politically difficult, especially considering the important role of arms in tribal culture. “This is an area where local communities may be able to help themselves, for example by working to reinstate traditions of safe havens and guaranteeing safe access to schools, markets and health centers,” he added.

Tribal leaders’ views on arms’ role in conflict are mixed. “Guns aren’t the problem,” Sheikh Mohammed al-Shaif, from al-Jowf Governorate, told IRIN. “Carrying guns is a part of the society and the culture. It’s not arms that kill people, it is their mentality.”

Nevertheless, he said tribal leaders would consider giving up their arms. “Based on the people I know, they are ready to abandon their guns, if there is a guarantee that they won’t be victims of violence and that the law will be fairly enforced. Tribes are ready to accept the rule of law if it is fair.”

But the sheikh complains that gun-related laws are not equitably enforced. “When the law against carrying guns was issued, it was not enforced fairly. There were exceptions made for high-ranking officials. Rich people with many cars will not be stopped at a checkpoint to be searched for guns.”

The sheikh also echoed Hales’s call to reinstate the tradition of safe havens, calling in particular for Sanaa to be made free of tribal conflict. His words carried a measure of solemnity, as a tribal leader had been gunned down just hours earlier in a revenge killing, at the door of a crowded Sanaa restaurant.

Diminishing resources

Sheikh Mohammed made it clear that he and others like him are ready to accept the government’s writ, even in tribal lands, if only they had confidence in the central leadership. “If there was a loyal, serious intention from the government to solve social problems equitably and fairly, the law would be followed,” he added.

At a time when US policymakers are considering a billion-dollar defence package to help the Yemeni government stave off various security threats, analysts question whether such political violence is the most serious long-term challenge to Yemen’s stability.

“Social violence is the greatest threat to Yemen over the long term,” said Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, a Yemeni political analyst. “Political violence and violence by the state against the population can be reversed relatively easily; there could be a new political settlement. But diminishing resources is an intractable problem that cannot be solved by political consensus. It will require much more work.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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