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Water shortages a looming disaster, say experts

[Yemen] Al-Haima resident, Abdulaziz Ahmad Ali, contemplates the problems of water supply that affect his village.  The common well is the focus of competing demands for water between the local area and the nearby city of Taiz. [Date picture taken: 01/17/
Al-Haima resident, Abdulaziz Ahmad Ali, contemplates the water supply problems that affect his village (Aaron Bone/IRIN)

Abdulaziz Ahmad Ali stands on a dry hillside next to the water tanks that supply the village of al-Haima, a small hamlet of 120 people. But the tanks, part of a World Bank project set up five years ago, are empty because the pump is broken again, explained Ali.

"They always break down when the water in the well is low," he said.

At the well below, workmen from the nearby city of Taiz, which shares a well with al-Haima, repair the municipal pump. But they won't be repairing the village’s pump, they say, because it’s not their responsibility.

“The problem is money,” said Ali. "Parts are very expensive and we don't have the money. So tomorrow, the city's pumps will be working and ours will not."

A looming disaster

Yemen is one of the most water scarce countries in the world, where the average per capita share of renewable water resources is 125 cubic metres per year, according to government estimates. This represents one-tenth of the average in most countries of the Middle East and North Africa, and one-fiftieth of the world average.

Further, according to a recent UNICEF report, Yemen has the world's fourth fastest growing population, which will increasingly reduce each person's available share of fresh water.

Experts in the government and from donor nations describe the problem as a looming national disaster.

"Sustainability is no longer attainable in over-exploited areas," states the government's five-year water plan for 2005-2009, adding that such areas represent most of the country.

The government predicts that as the crisis progresses, "increasing numbers of the population will acquire feelings of inequities in access to water," which will lead to "growing social tensions".

Environmental experts agree, warning that Yemen’s water crisis could result in increased rural poverty, urban migration and unemployment within the next generation.

In ten to fifteen years, “agriculture will wipe itself out" as farmers on the edges of the country's water basins run out of available water, predicted Ton Negenman, First Secretary for Water and Sanitation at the Netherlands embassy.

The national plan, announced in 2004, calls for a mix of legal reform, government restructuring, decentralisation, privatisation and investment to combat the problem.

“It’s a good plan,” said Gerhard Redecker, coordinator of German Development Corporation, a German state-owned development bank working in the water sector. “But it remains to be seen if it can be implemented.”

Agricultural consumption

Yemen’s agriculture sector is vital to the economy, accounting for more than half of the jobs in a country where the unemployment rate stands at 37 percent, according to World Bank figures. What’s more, it is the agriculture industry that has traditionally supported rural economies, averting mass migration to the cities.

It is also the agriculture industry, however, that uses the vast majority of the country’s water – some 90 percent.

According to Redecker, it is here that water-saving schemes must be implemented, if a crisis is to be averted. A corrupt political system based on traditional quid pro quos, however, makes this easier said than done, he explained.

“Many influential people are heavily involved in agriculture – especially the farming of qat [a mildly narcotic plant chewed by a majority of the population] – and don't want to be monitored," said Redecker.

The World Bank cut its funding to Yemen by a third in December, and in November the US dropped Yemen as a candidate for its highly publicized development programme, the Millenium Challenge Account. Both cited corruption as major reasons for their decisions.

The price of cash crops

According to analysts, the state’s provision of free water is costing the nation’s water supply dear. The Sana water basin, for example, is losing 250 million cubic metres of water per year – four times the amount replaced by rainfall each year, according to a 2003 World Bank report.

Given that water is extracted from the country’s wells at virtually no cost to the well owner, intensive farming of high-value export crops – such as mangos and bananas – end up having a steep price in water terms.

“Exporting one banana is like exporting a litre of water,” Ali noted.

By far the most profitable crop in the country is qat, which earns farmers five times the revenue of mangos.

Qat is not a water-intensive crop by nature, but given the crop’s high-profit returns farmers often over-irrigate to increase yields, said Naji Abu Hatim, a senior development specialist for the World Bank.

They also frequently cultivate it at lower altitudes, making more irrigation necessary.

As a result, qat was estimated to consume as much as 35 percent of the country’s irrigation water, he said.

Many experts have urged the imposition of a fee for water usage, which would cut into the profits of powerful plantation owners.

Often, however, landowners are politically connected.

The rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in power since 1978, has been marked by a careful balancing act between these conflicts of interest.

A lack of urgency

Observers in the field, meanwhile, argue that the government is moving far too slowly to solve the problem.

Negenman explained that many of the plans to improve water efficiency that were introduced ten years ago had since run out of steam.

“The sense of urgency that we saw from the government in the 1990s seems to be lost,” he said.

Muhammad Saleh Ali, chairman of a parliamentary water committee, which recently toured through eight water-critical governorates, agreed that more needed to be done.

“In my opinion, the problem will need more solutions,” he said, adding that none of the committee’s proposals had been implemented.

Asked if anyone had come to al-Haima to teach water-conservation techniques, local farmer Muhammad said his qat crop earned him twenty times more money than his potatoes.

“What could they teach me that could convince me to not grow it?” he asked.

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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