During Yemen's rainy season, which stretches from August to October, the Silah, the cobbled road that intersects the capital Sanaa's ancient Old City, often floods becoming, for a few brief hours, a fast-running river. Over the years, the road has been gradually deepened, with steps built up the side and bridges spanning its width so that the rest of the area does not overflow with water from the surrounding mountains.
At such times it is hard for Sanaanis, the residents of the capital, to countenance the idea that their city is rapidly running out of water. But this may happen sooner rather than later: Sanaa province's water aquifers are being exhausted by rapid population growth, demand for the narcotic qat leaf, and the growing threat of climate change.
Although the country is probably best known abroad for the uprising that unseated former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011, and as a haven for al Qaeda, it could soon hold the distinction of being one of the hardest places in the world to get a glass of water. In 2011, it looked like social order in Sanaa was on the verge of collapsing. But regardless of politics, it could soon become a ghost town -- a tourist attraction centered around the Old City as the real estate developments that sprouted up around the city's borders before 2011 are left to rot.
In a 2010 report commissioned by the Yemeni government, analysts at U.S. consultancy McKinsey forecast that if water use in the Sanaa basin was not controlled, the area could completely run out of water by about 2020. "Sanaa will almost certainly face a severe water crisis in the coming years," they wrote, "and might even run out of water in the coming decade." If this were allowed to happen, the analysts reckoned, the implications would be dire: "Scarcity of water resources can have staggering consequences on health, property, population migration and ultimately the very fabric of society."
Sanaanis already know what it feels like to run out of water. In 2011, protesters took to the streets across the country, to often brutal and murderous response from troops loyal to Saleh, and fighting broke out in Sanaa between the Republican Guard, run by Saleh's son, Ahmed Ali, and tribal militiamen associated with his rival, Hamid al-Ahmar. The economy came to a grinding halt. Just as importantly, tribesmen in the southern Marib province blew up a key pipeline connecting the area with the port of Ras Issa in the south, the main source of domestic fuel supplies.
Most potable water in Yemen is produced from a series of deep underground aquifers using electric and diesel-powered pumps. Some of these pumps are run by the government, but many more are run by private companies, most of them unlicensed and unregulated. Because of this, it is nigh on impossible to control the volume of water produced. By some (conservative) estimates, about 250 million cubic meters of water are produced from the Sanaa basin every year, 80 percent of which is non-renewable. In recent years, the businessmen who produce the water have had to drill ever-deeper wells and use increasingly powerful pumps to get the region's dwindling water reserves out of the ground.
When the oil pipeline was cut off, the price for black-market diesel shot up, and with it the price of water. Electricity was cut off across the country. Government water supply -- which is erratic at best, and only covers about 60 percent of urban homes and (at most) 40 percent of rural households -- dried up completely. The price of water on the black market can run up to 5,000 Yemeni Riyals (YR) a truck but peaked at 12,000 YR in 2011.
Businesses were forced to shut down across the country. Factories couldn't get fuel so their owners laid off workers in the hundreds. Constant blackouts made doing business nearly impossible. With growing numbers of people out of work and prices for food and water rapidly increasing, it became harder and harder for average Yemenis to make ends meet, particularly the 10 million plus people living on $2 a day or less.
Abdullah, a lifelong resident of Sanaa's Old City, finds thinking back to 2011 painful. It was, he says, "the nightmare of my life." During the darkest days of the crisis, he and some of his wealthier neighbors paid for a truck to come and deliver water to the Al-Alami quarter of the Old City where he lives. At first, a handful of people turned up. But as word spread, the queue grew into the hundreds, pushing and shoving to get to the truck. Fights broke out between neighbors who previously had never exchanged a cross word in their lives. And then the truck ran out of water.
"It was the worst day of my life," he says. "After the crisis, my mother told me, Abdullah, we are fine now. But if we don't have fuel, and if we don't have electricity, then we don't have water. I think, where will we be in five, in 10 years' time?"
Sanaanis have long been aware that something is not quite right with their water supply. Every quarter of the Old City has its own walled garden, owned by the state and rented to local residents at a nominal fee. Local families tend to the gardens on behalf of their neighbors, distributing the fruit and vegetables they produce on the basis of need. In the past, each garden had its own well, attached to the local mosque, which also serviced the local community, while most crops were largely rain-fed. Until a new sewage system was built in the 1980s, wastewater from the mosques and houses was also used to irrigate the crops.
When he was a child, Abdullah's mother used to take him to the Al-Alami garden in the afternoons. Today, he surveys an expanse of cracked earth walled off from the bustle of outside world. "We used to have a lot of fruit and vegetables, but not any more," he says. "They planted cactuses, but they didn't take. Now the family that looks after the garden has started building houses. This was all green; there was no earth like this. I loved to come here with my mother in the afternoons. Who would come here now?"
He points to the Al-Alami well, one of the oldest and biggest in the city. It dried up when he was too young understand its importance. The water, maybe 100 feet under ground, had been used up completely. Now, the garden is irrigated using water from new diesel pumps which draw water from wells drilled hundreds of yards underground. Most of the water is now fed to a set of taps built along the side of the local mosque, from which locals who can't afford trucked supplies collect water most mornings.
Bernd Schoenewald, a water expert at KfW, a German development bank, who works with Yemeni technocrats on water issues, says that there are two scenarios for Sanaa over the coming decade.
"The depletion is obvious," he says. "Water pumps have to go deeper and deeper, wells are getting less productive and the Yemeni government is well aware of it. Different studies have tried to come up with short and medium term solutions like reducing irrigation. However, in the long run, 10 to 15 years from now, there are only two options: getting additional water from outside into Sanaa basin, either transferring water from other basins or pumping desalinated water from the Red Sea coast to Sanaa; or moving people from Sanaa to other basins which would result effectively in moving the capital city."
The government needs billions of dollars to make the first option work -- in 2010, the McKinsey analysts reckoned that simply maintaining basic water supplies in Sanaa would cost $9 to 10 billion over 20 years. However, the second option -- mass migration -- may well occur of its own accord, Schoenewald says. "It would be a natural consequence of inactivity."
Sanaanis do not have a monopoly on suffering. Hodeidah province is one of the poorest parts of Yemen, and according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) acute child malnutrition there is as bad as in Somalia and Afghanistan. Once one of the greenest parts of the country, it is drying up after a decade of poor rainfall and rising water prices.
In late February, Yahyan arrived early at a school building in the Mansouria district of Hodeidah to collect a $50 payment from the British charity Oxfam. It wasn't enough to keep his extended family of 72 going, he said, but was a help. About six miles from the school, Yahyan's home is surrounded by emaciated earth which he says was once fertile land. A neighboring farm, which can afford the diesel for a water pump, stands out on the horizon, an oasis of green in the middle of what resembles an arid desert. Yahyan, who is about 90 years old, says that when Ibrahim al-Hamdi was president he grew watermelons here. "It rained; it was the best time of my life. I was a big farmer," he says. Al-Hamdi was assassinated in 1977.
In the cushioned mafraj, or meeting-room, of his spacious home in the Hadda district of Sanaa, Mohamed al-Iryani pauses for thought. He is trying to explain how it came to this. Al-Iryani, Yemen's ambassador to Germany in 2011, was sacked after publicly criticizing the Saleh regime's brutal crackdown on protesters. He is now out of work and considering a return to the development sector. A water resource engineer, he was part of the team that drafted Yemen's first water laws in the 1990s and was appointed the country's first water minister in 2002.
Al-Iryani partly blames the introduction of modern drilling techniques and diesel pumps for the growing scarcity of water in Yemen (Schoenenwald describes it as a "curse for Yemeni water resources") which arrived shortly after oil was discovered in the country. "The main reason is the uncontrolled use of technology, drilling wells, installing water pumps and not having any control over the quantity being pumped out," he explains. "Yemeni farmers are, by their culture, rain fed farmers, and in the best case they had stream water or streams, and they used to cherish water very highly. The new technology made people think there was a sea under the ground. Pump as much as you can and there will be no limit to the water."
The situation is exacerbated by a lack of regulation and huge government fuel subsidies, which make producing water using pumps relatively cheap, Schoenewald says. If the subsidies weren't in place, people would not be able to turn as much of a profit from irrigating crops, which accounts for 90 percent of all water use in Yemen. In the long term, he says, farming needs to become more efficient.
Even then, the most profitable cash crop for Yemeni farmers would be qat, a mildly narcotic leaf chewed at social meetings in mafrajes like al-Iryani's, as it has been for decades. Qat brings with it many other social issues ("traditionally, only wealthier Yemenis chew Qat at weekends, today about half of the population is chewing daily" Schoenewald says), but it also accounts for about 40 to 50 percent of the water used in agriculture, a huge amount for something with no nutritional or social benefits.
"The willingness of qat farmers to pay for water is the highest among the farmers because of the return, which is very high," al-Iryani says, citing revenue of about $8,000 per hectare for qat farmers, higher than any other crop. Qat only grows in mountainous areas, so is mainly farmed in the country's northern highlands, including Sanaa province.
Efforts have been made to curb the production of qat and to improve the efficiency of farming in Yemen, and in 2011, after a conference on water, the Saleh government signed the "Sanaa declaration," pledging to use "efficiently every single drop of water" resource development and management. But the damage has already been done. "Using water more efficiently would help in the short to medium term but the high population growth means that the demand will inevitably rise," Schoenewald says. Sooner or later Sanaa will run out of water.
Al-Iryani agrees, but points out that neighboring Saudi Arabia, with a more or less identical population size and miniscule water resources, has been able to meet its people's needs. But Saudi Arabia is far richer in another resource -- oil -- and can afford to desalinate seawater. It has also been able to build an economy that does not depend on water-intensive activities like farming (in fact, Riyadh is overseeing a gradual phasing out of domestic wheat production). The real issue, al-Iryani says, is one of development.
"[The problem] is the failure of our social and economic development to really diversify and to bring people into new economic activities that are less water dependent," he says. Yet it is clear that Saleh's successor, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and the coalition government headed by Prime Minister Mohamed Basindwah are currently in no position to focus on development issues as they deal with a once-again deteriorating security situation. That will need to change sooner rather than later.
Peter Salisbury is an independent journalist and analyst, and a consultant researcher at Chatham House's Yemen Forum.
* Correction: The article originally inaccurately stated the price of water on the black market peaked at 2,000 YR a truck in June 2011, a fivefold increase from the 800 YR being charged during June the year before.