We’ve talked about the internal struggle waging in Yemen to control its oil resources, the revenues from which can buy patronage for a new regime, but water is the other liquid gold informing the conflict, and as al-Qaeda steps in to wield control over a country running dry, it becomes easier to map the conflict in terms of water shortage.
As a showdown with Houthi rebels ensues in the north, separatists fight government forces in the south, groups linked to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) step up attacks and make territorial gains, a divided military fights itself, split between a new interim government and the unrelenting network of ousted President Saleh’s friends and family, water becomes a main currency charting the complexities.
The link between water scarcity and conflict in Yemen may appear to be indirect on a broader level, but that makes it no less pertinent.
The rebellion of Shi’ite Houthis is centered in the Sa'ada region, in the country’s north on the border with Saudi Arabia – an area that has been in the grips of a profound water crisis for some years, Dr. Dominic Moran, Arab World Project Coordinator for Greenpeace, tells Oilprice.com.
Likewise, in southern highland areas now controlled by al-Qaeda-linked groups, water is a powerful currency as control over the resource is a key priority for villagers. According to Dr. Moran, there are “persistent reports of localized tribal and inter-communal violence over control of wells and water sources, particularly in highlands”. When al-Qaeda takes control over these areas, it necessarily brings with it a semblance of authority where no central authority has been able to establish a foothold. Villagers often welcome this new authority, which establishes control over water supplies and manages disputes, as a positive alternative to total anarchy and uncertainty. As such, water becomes a way for al-Qaida to gain support and grow its influence among residents and tribes in the highlands.
“Under Saleh, al-Qaida-linked forces received important combat experience and government largesse to help the government fight against the Houthi rebels. Here again there is an indirect link between water and conflict,” Moran says.
Some highland aquifers are falling by 10 to 20 feet annually, threatening agriculture and leaving major cities without adequate safe drinking water, according to the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP). “It is no coincidence that these areas are now outside government control,” Dr. Moran says.
But the southern lowlands, areas of which al-Qaeda also controls, are similarly suffering from growing water stress. According to a World Bank report, climate change and variability impacts on water balance pose the greatest risk is for reduced water availability in the southern lowlands, which in turn could lend greater impetus to conflict and boost al-Qaida’s staying power.
On a broader level, Moran says it is fairly easy to draw a link between the increased intensity of the conflict and the devastating drought in 2008-2009. And the outlook for Yemen’s water crisis is bleak, with some experts estimating that the capital, Sana’a, is likely to be the first capital in the world to run dry, while others estimate that it could dry out completely by 2025. Groundwater reserves are likely to be mostly depleted in another two to three decades, irrespective of climate change, reducing agricultural output by up to 40%, according to the World Bank.
Around 97 percent of Yemen’s agricultural land is threatened by desertification. The water crisis is, as always, partly man-made, with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB) playing a role through their promotion of unsustainable agricultural expansion.
“The lack of government capacity to enforce new water regulations is a problem shared by many developing states and most Arab states. This makes resorting to legislation and international commitments on water issues, sustainable development and climate change all but impossible to implement on the ground. This situation is exacerbated by endemic corruption, which siphons off the few financial resources devoted to such issues in Yemen,” Moran tells Oilprice.com.
The introduction from the 1970s on of new drilling techniques upset traditional agricultural practices that had maintained a balance between supply and demand, allowing both a massive population surge and causing what is now the incipient collapse of often artisanal highland aquifers, Moran notes.
According to the Middle East Research and Information Project, future supply options include pumping desalinated water from the Red Sea over a distance of 155 miles, over 9,000-foot mountains into the capital, which is itself located at an altitude of 7,226 feet. The exorbitant cost of pumping would push water prices up to $10 per cubic meter. “This is a completely untenable in a situation where most urban residents are working multiple jobs just to survive, and impossible as substitute for agricultural water (which represents 90 percent of usage) depletion,” Dr. Moran says.
Another devastating geopolitical dynamic is the effect of water scarcity on demographics. There are real fears of a migratory surge into the Gulf countries and beyond – something Saudi Arabia, which is already contending with the Houthi rebellion on its border and the spillover unrest in its Shi’ite-dominated Eastern Province, should fear most.
Pressures produced by mass unemployment, high population growth rates and environmental degradation developing through growing water scarcity is already promoting a surge in rural-urban migration, estimated at 150,000 in 2009 to the capital alone.
There are also severe health impacts. Yemen has one of world's highest rates of child deformities from malnutrition and is second only to Afghanistan. The average person in Yemen survives on one-fifth of what the World Health Organization (WHO) considers to be an adequate amount of water.
Water has become such a critical factor in the conflict that any operation to determine the extent of al-Qaida’s influence in Yemen should begin here, in the southern highlands where radical authority is welcomed in the face of the prevailing chaos, and in the lowlands where water’s future is uncertain at best.
By Jen Alic of Oilprice.com
Jen Alic is a geopolitical analyst, co-founder of ISA Intel in Sarajevo and Tel Aviv, and the former editor-in-chief of ISN Security Watch in Zurich.