Yemen's Water Crisis: The Urgent Need for Action

Commentary | June 26, 2012

EWI's Nathan Wendt and Laith Aqel review obstacles to water resilience in Yemen.

Two years ago, EastWest Institute President John Edwin Mroz warned about the looming water crisis in the Republic of Yemen.  Unfortunately, little has improved.  Despite much international attention and a change in regime, Yemen remains in a dire situation, positioned as the first country to run out of water. Enormous consumption coupled with poor management and a growing population places a tremendous strain on already diminished water supplies.

Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the region with a nominal per capita GDP of 1460 USD and an annual growth rate of -2.5%. The low-income country is dependent on rapidly declining oil resources. Yemen’s unemployment rate is among the highest in the world, and economic insecurity is exacerbated by the high population growth rate. The vast majority of citizens are below the age of thirty.

The political and economic challenges of Yemen are compounded by a looming ecological disaster. Annual per capita water availability in Yemen is 115 m3; this is less than 10% of the regional average and 2% of the world average. In rural areas, only 38% of the people have access to safe water, and the corresponding figure for urban areas is 59%. With no permanent rivers, the country depends largely on groundwater extraction as well as rainfall and its diversion. Annual groundwater withdrawal (from wells and springs) exceeds recharge at an alarming rate. Approximately 90% of all water consumed is in the agricultural sector.   

To address concerns regarding dwindling water resources and its management, the government of Yemen established the National Water Resources Authority (NWRA) in 1995 and the Ministry of Water and Environment (MWE) in 2003. Following the creation of the MWE, the government developed the National Water Sector Strategy and Investment Program, 2005-2009 (NWSSIP), which outlines objectives, policies and approaches as well as plans of action. In 2002, the House of Representatives accepted the Water Law, which describes a licensing procedure for wells.

Reducing the gap between consumption and available renewable resources is a governmental priority. One way is by increasing the efficiency of water use. Irrigation efficiency is as low as 30%. Several projects have sought to install more efficient localized irrigation systems, but the costs are high. To enhance water conveyance and distribution efficiency, the government has replaced traditional, earthen canals with PVC and GI pipes. The FAO estimates that irrigation efficiency could reach 60% by constructing a conveyance pipe system and over 80% by utilizing localized irrigation systems, which would further increase average yields of crops.

The government is already investing in groundwater recharge and harvesting techniques. Yemen also has the longest sea coasts, introducing the possibility of desalination as utilized in other Gulf countries, though transportation of water from the coastline to the highlands still poses a problem.

International donors have been active in Yemen, working closely with the government to achieve the goals of NWSSIP. Germany, the Netherlands and the World Bank are financing a number of projects as well as assisting in the development of comprehensive water policies;  other countries, such as Japan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, provide significant bilateral foreign aid for development projects and humanitarian needs. Established in January 2010, ‘Friends of Yemen’ recently met in Riyadh to reaffirm their commitment to the country. The group of forty countries and intergovernmental organizations pledged a total of 4 billion USD, 3.25 billion USD from the KSA alone. The United States government intends to provide at least 118 million USD in civilian assistance to Yemen this year.

Through the combined efforts of the international donor community and national agencies, there have been some notable changes in water management in Yemen. Decentralization of water management has led to the creation of Water User Groups (WUGs), Water Users Associations (WUAs) and Water User Ligaments (WULs). Such groups manage resources locally, concerning themselves with a broad range of measures like the location and depth of wells, recharge measures and management of reservoirs. Delegates from these institutions are then supposed to form larger committees at the basin level with government officials, creating a bridge between local and federal authorities.

Despite all these efforts, there are many obstacles to the adaption of an effective water management plan in Yemen. With the political unrest and the dire situation of the economy, the already weak government is more than stretched. As a new agency in the young state, the NWRA is still in the capacity-building stage. Despite formulating a comprehensive theoretical basis on water management and gaining support from the international community, the NWRA hasn’t been particularly effective to date. The overstaffed agency has yet to establish a presence in each of the twenty-two governorates or to demonstrate its overall competence. The Water Law of 2002 is not sufficiently monitored; violations, including unlicensed drilling, occur frequently. The agency is also weakened by the ongoing power struggle between the state and the tribal authorities, who often resist laws and regulations of the central government. 

Because agriculture accounts for the most water usage, the MWE must work closely with the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation (MAI). But the attempts to increase cooperation between the two ministries haven’t produced many tangible results. In late 2007, the Yemeni government formed an Inter Ministerial Committee (IMSC) to coordinate integrated water resource management between MWE, MAI, the Ministry of Finance (MoF), the Ministry of Local Administration (MoLA), and the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation (MoPIC). However, the IMSC has rarely convened, and when it has, it has been at the request of international donors.

Management of water resources ultimately is a Yemen livelihood issue, and thus ownership of the solution must come from within the state.  There remains a need for strong coordination between the various ministries involved. Water is a cross-cutting issue, and its management must be at the forefront of national policy. The international community--in particular, Saudi Arabia--should work closely with the Yemeni government to reevaluate current water policies. The need is both glaringly evident and long overdue.