War and Water Insecurity in Yemen

Yemen faces many problems in the years to come; often forgotten is the increasing threat of climate change. The country has long faced issues of water insecurity and scarcity, desertification and overgrazing, but these issues are set to get worse given the global climate and, even more so, the war in Yemen.

Pressure on Yemen’s natural resources has been growing as the population has grown, and poses a significant risk to the economy and the livelihoods of people living in Yemen. In particular, Yemen faces great water insecurity. Rainfall across the country varies widely, with some parts only receiving 50mm per year, and the water table decreasing by 6-7 meters annually due to overuse. The scarcity of water affects both the economy and the day-to-day lives of Yemenis, and as climate change worsens, so does Yemen’s insecurity.

Agriculture is one of Yemen’s biggest sectors, making up 13% of the country’s GDP. Many Yemenis rely on farming for their livelihoods, in particular the two thirds of the population that live in rural areas. The agriculture sector in Yemen is primarily made up of qat farming, vegetables and fruit, and livestock providing foodstuff to the general population, all water intensive and a strain on the country's water resources. With population trends in Yemen demonstrating a growth rate of 3% a year, demand on water resources and the foodstuffs produced from farming is set to increase, putting further pressure on Yemen’s resources. Water insecurity in the country also directly affects the health of many Yemenis; the UNDP points to the unplanned expansion of urban centers often overburdening the capacity of those areas, leading to poor sanitation and waste management which can lead to disease.The ongoing war in Yemen exacerbates all of these vulnerabilities, amplifying the effects of water scarcity for Yemenis. There have been reports that all sides have made access to water nearly impossible for those on the ground; in 2016 it was reported that the Saudi- and Emirati-led airstrikes hit a reservoir that held water for 30,000 people. Similarly, the Houthis in Yemen have also made water more inaccessible with reports that it is being confiscated at checkpoints, in particular around Ta’iz.

While the conflict exacerbates water insecurity, that insecurity in turn adds fuel to the conflict as water is very much connected to land issues. A 2010 report on water conflict in Yemen explains that there is often “territorial (upstream) control over the flow of surface water to downstream users.... With the exception of direct rainfall, all water sources are subject to the potential for unequal access and control, key factors that lead competition to develop into conflict and armed violence.” This competition over water also affects  interpersonal relationships, which become more strained as the need for water becomes greater, particularly for internally displaced people who rely on host families’ resources and foodstuffs.

The effects of water scarcity on the health of Yemenis have also been exacerbated since the war began, and have been well documented by various UN agencies and NGOs. In particular, Yemen is now facing the largest documented cholera outbreak ever, which started shortly after the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition began airstrikes in 2015. The coalition’s assault on the national electrical grid in April 2015 left the San’a wastewater plant without power. Despite UNICEF attempts to maintain operations, the plant only runs sporadically, allowing untreated wastewater to leak out into irrigation canals and drinking water supplies. According to the United Nations, diarrhea outbreaks began shortly thereafter and by October 2016 the first cases of cholera were reported, demonstrating the link between airstrikes, water insecurity, and the worsening health crisis.

Agencies and organizations working in Yemen have continued to warn of the effects of the war on Yemen’s water security, particularly since the assault on Hudaydah resumed. In recent days, important water infrastructure has been hit including a UNICEF-supported sanitation center in the Zabid district and the water station in al-Mina district, which provides Hudaydah with most of its water. In the face of possibly an “unstoppable” cholera epidemic, the World Health Organization has asked for a ceasefire to allow the organization to vaccinate the civilian population.

In the longer term, many have recommended the development of desalination plants to solve Yemen’s water insecurity. Efforts have previously been made by the Saudi Development Fund and the Yemeni government to build a Saudi-funded desalination plant for Ta'iz, however the escalation of the war has stalled negotiations. Despite these efforts, the risk of airstrikes still loom making the development of long lasting desalination plants infeasible. Until the people of Yemen have reliable and sustainable access to water and the necessary infrastructure, the country and its people will continue to be at risk.