No More Water by 2025?

by Magali Bonne-Moreau

Experts are warning that Yemenis living in the capital city, Sana’a, may no longer have access to water by 2025. Like many Middle Eastern countries, Yemen is an arid country that faces a problem of water scarcity*. Rain and groundwater are the main sources of water in Yemen since there are no rivers in the country. A recent New York Times article reports that if water management does not improve, it may lead to massive population displacement as well as job losses and declining incomes. These conclusions are based on a preliminary study produced by the consulting firm McKinsey and Company at the request of the Yemeni government.

Demand for water in Yemen has greatly increased over the past decades, due to a fast growing population that has doubled since 1975, and to the prevalence of the cultivation of qat, a mildly narcotic leaf that generates more income than other cash crops. Yemeni farms use about 90 percent of the country’s water. Thousands of wells have been drilled illegally to irrigate crops, and the growing need for water and inadequate irrigation techniques have resulted in the depletion of Yemen’s aquifers, with groundwater being extracted faster than it can be replenished by natural discharge. This has led to migration from rural to urban areas, as streams dry up and people can no longer farm on their land. It is important to note that Yemen is a major food importer, with around 90 percent of its food coming from abroad.

There have been different campaigns to educate Yemenis about sustainable water management options at the individual level, like the one in the video presented below, and the creation of Rowyan, a national mascot to encourage water conservation. Several projects related to sustainable water management in Sana’a and at the national level are being funded by international organisations and the EU, and water rationing is being carried out in most of the major cities.

A Geography Compass paper by Hassan et al. (2010) provides insights into the challenges and opportunities related to water management in an arid Arab country. Although the politics, geography and level of water scarcity differ, a comparative approach could be taken to draw parallels between scenarios in Palestine and Yemen. For readers who prefer a more theoretical approach to the sustainability of water use, another Geography Compass paper by Hauhs and Graefe (2009) presents perspectives from the social and natural sciences, and shows how both of these approaches can be combined to facilitate discussions amongst water managers with different backgrounds.

*Water scarce countries are defined by the World Bank as those that have less than 1,000 m3 of renewable internal freshwater resources available per capita in a year. Yemen is estimated to have about 200 m3 of water per capita, which is 3 percent of the global average of 6,750 m3.

Read more about water scarcity in Yemen in the New York Times green blog

Watch the Rowyan video

Read Hassan, M. A., Shahin, K., Klinkenberg, B., McIntyre, G., Diabat, M., Al-Rahman Tamimi, A. and Nativ, R. (2010), Palestinian Water II: Climate Change and Land Use. Geography Compass, 4: 139–157

Read Hauhs, M. and Graefe, O. (2009), Sustainable Use of Water from Natural and Social Science Perspectives. Geography Compass, 3: 2025–2044.

Watch “Yemen – Water War” by What’s Up Productions

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