Water and Iron: Intrastate Hydro-politics in Yemen

Current discourse on Yemen is dominated by the specter of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The organisation, which formed as a result of a merger between Al-Qaida Saudi Arabia and Al-Qaida Yemen in January 2009, continues to define both popular perception of the country and foreign policy towards it. It is certainly true that the Obama Administration’s policies in Yemen during the Arab Revolts have been framed primarily by a perceived threat from AQAP. However, a reluctance to critically engage tensions within Yemen will harm the ability of foreign observers to discuss its rapidly evolving political landscape.

One particular area where this is evident is Yemen’s impending water crisis. Yemen’s widely publicised political and economic challenges are worsened significantly by this disaster. Annual per capita availability in Yemen is currently 115 cubic meters, which is 10% of the regional average and 2% of the world average. Only 38% of rural residents and 59% of urban residents currently have access to safe water1 Yemen has no permanent rivers and depends on groundwater extraction and rainfall for its water supply, with crippling inefficiencies in both respects. Approximately 90% of its water is currently consumed by an agricultural sector dominated by the popular narcotic qat2.

It is important to note that Yemen’s water scarcity is entirely a pitfall of the modern era. Yemenis constantly hear stories of a romanticized Felix Arabia (‘Fertile’, ‘Blessed’ or ‘Happy Arabia’) that was hailed by Rome for its water distribution capabilities. Irrigation canals were staggeringly efficient and nurtured an area of the Arabian Peninsula known for its wealth and opulence. The current water crisis could therefore be understood as a result of colonialism and issues of class rather than simply through population growth and resource sustainability. This is certainly how Yemenis with deteriorating access to water reserves are viewing the problem.

Currently, water in the country is predominantly consumed in northern cities such as Sana’a rather than equally throughout the country (despite this reality, Sana’a is calculated to completely deplete its water reserves by 2020 if resources are not controlled3). Former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh cultivated a small central state that balanced itself precariously against tribal and regional interests, resulting in a weak public infrastructure system. The 1990 unification of North and South Yemen resulted in a great deal of political and economic power being diverted to Saleh and his close cadre of elites, greatly alienating northern tribes such as the Houthis and also previously independent southern provinces. The arrangement, which resulted in obvious inequalities that provoked the 1994 Yemeni civil war, greatly affected the already limited water distribution. Since 1990, water has been distributed in a fashion that mirrors how Yemeni capital flows function along lines of cronyism.

This reality has recently become worsened by an emerging water black market that fills the void left by the weak state. The black market currently charges YR 5000 per truck, however prices peaked at YR 12000 in 2011. Price volatility reflects the nature of current inflation rates, which in 2011 was 400% for petroleum products and 80% for some food staples4. Residents that can access public water, over ten million of whom live on less than YR 500 per day5, therefore find themselves in an increasingly exploitative dynamic that is significantly worsened by a legacy of failed British and Ottoman irrigation projects.

Although non-governmental organisations and international projects working to confront the problem are well-meaning, they ultimately serve to exacerbate this core problem. Yemen is currently receiving significant bilateral aid from countries such as Japan and Saudi Arabia, as well as a number of projects from Germany, the Netherlands, and the World Bank. These efforts have resulted in noticeable changes in Yemeni water management, and the construction of such structures as new wells are certainly a step in the right direction. However, as long as the cronyism which is endemic to Yemeni politics and economics remains unaffected, assistance funds and conserved water resources will continue to be squandered. The core problem of power centralisation in the northern Yemeni elite remains intact. Thus, the anger generated by resource scarcity will be directed at those who benefit from this power dynamic and also those who support it.

It is this centralisation of control, which occurs in deference to democratic aspirations among Yemenis, which will be illuminated by water access over the coming years. The Yemeni Revolution provided an opportunity to build stronger democratic institutions in the country, but was instead curbed to result in the February election of President Hadi through a ballot on which he was the only candidate. The effectiveness of popular interactions with the regime in Sana’a, particularly by southern Yemeni provinces which remain disenfranchised, is still a pressing question. This caused intense bitterness among many demonstrators, who overwhelmingly demanded representative democracy as a solution for grievances such as water access.

Water could therefore easily become an effective rhetorical tool to encourage movements against this ruling elite. Further violence has already been observed, and another civil war remains possible. Given the reluctance of American policymakers to distinguish between AQAP and the current wave of secessionist organising that has been occurring in southern Yemen since 2007, this energised mobilisation may bring areas of Yemen into conflict with U.S. anti-terrorist policy. The United States could therefore find itself in a spiraling situation where it increasingly supports a government in Sana’a that is believed to be the cause of such problems as water scarcity.

Yemen is a microcosm of larger emerging trends in the Global-South in relation to water access. Rather than resulting in conflict between states, as popular discourse appears to conclude, states such as Yemen which have experienced the negative effects of post-colonialism and neoliberal economics, not to mention a disastrous attempt at socialism in the south of the country, are more likely to channel their aggression against local elites. Water shortages will cause conflict within states rather than between them. Yemen, which is on track to experience water crises before other states, can easily become an analytical model for how these dynamics will play out on a global stage. As economic woes complement continued political strife, sporadic violence, and foreign interventionism, understanding hydro-politics in Yemen will be crucial for approaching the effects of climate change both in the region and globally.


1 http://www.ewi.info/yemens-water-crisis-urgent-need-action return to main text
2 Ibid return to main text
3 http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/08/30/yemens_water_woes return to main text
4 http://al-shorfa.com/en_GB/articles/meii/features/main/2012/05/23/feature-02 return to main text
5 http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/08/30/yemens_water_woes return to main text

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Published by Asfar in London, UK - ISSN 2055-7957 (Online)