Small Wars Journal

Yemen’s Water Sustainability Crisis

Thu, 01/25/2018 - 6:51pm

Yemen’s Water Sustainability Crisis

David Wren

A Review of Yemen

Since the official unification of the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) and People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) in 1990, the Republic of Yemen (RoY) has been plagued with political instability, sectarianism, and economic stagnation, which has resulted in a Fragile States Index ranking of fourth worst in the world for 20164. Despite the unification of the Yemen Arab Republic and People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, partisan obstacles, ideological divergences, and corruption persist and impede advancement and long-term stability. RoY is comprised of 99% Muslims5, with an estimated 65% Sunni-majority, controlling southern Yemen, and the remaining 35% Shia-minority, controlling northern Yemen. Politically, the centuries-old schism between Sunni and Shia fractured an already fragile state into galvanized and zealous segments.  The civil/proxy war, currently being fought along these sectarian lines, has placed a significant strain on RoY’s economy thus halting its exports, increasing pressure on its exchange rate, and accelerating inflation. As a result, the RoY is the poorest of the Middle Eastern countries, and approximately 54% of the populace live below the poverty line1.  The civil war also forced 2.5 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)3 away from their homes; therefore, they are unable to work and require humanitarian assistance.  Socially, the dependence on khat (also spelled qat) creates a significant challenge for government officials who seek to become independent of international assistance.  Before the start of the conflict in 2014, the RoY relied heavily upon diminishing oil reserves, which accounted for 25% of Yemen’s GDP and 65% of their government revenue5. However, agriculture and herding encompass approximately 19% of RoY’s GDP, which employs the vast majority of the labor force5.  Additionally, RoY’s informal economy significantly influences its sluggish economic growth by funding terrorism through human trafficking, unregulated labor factions, and narcotics trafficking.  RoY’s illicit drug trade has caused significant ramifications throughout the Middle East, by financing violent non-state actors who seek to undermine regional stability and subsequently create ripples throughout the global economy. Khat, RoY’s principal narcotic, is trafficked throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Furthermore, RoY’s informal economy provides a domestic market for khat, which is a mild narcotic that feeds no one, is used by 90% of males, is locally grown, and utilizes 40% of RoY’s freshwater basin2.  Therefore, due to political volatility, economic uncertainty, and social norms, RoY’s current supply of fresh water is not sustainable.

Yemen’s Background

In 1990, the Yemen Arab Republic and People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen reached an agreement, after 21 years of negotiation, to unify and become the Republic of Yemen.  However, northern and southern Yemen have been effectively segmented along the previous boundary into a Sunni-controlled south and a Shia-controlled north.

This fragmentation drastically decreased the country’s ability to provide effective governance and rule of law, which reignited the current civil war and allows violent non-state actors such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-Yemen (ISIL-Y) to exert significant negative influence and control over the civilian populace.  To complicate matters, the pro-government Sunnis are externally supported by Saudi Arabia with lethal and nonlethal aid while the Shia Houthis receive external assistance from Iran. The civil war has resulted in an approximate 2.5 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) that are unable to work and require significant humanitarian aid3. Additionally, Transparency International has ranked RoY 154th out of 167 countries for 2016 in terms of their corruption perceptions6, which has a direct correlation with their increased fragile state4. Therefore, if long-term development is to succeed, corruption and cronyism must cease, and the government must build trust with its citizens.

Yemeni society is relatively homogeneous with approximately 62% of the RoY’s population under the age of 245 and highly-influenced by social media, a high unemployment rate, and traditional beliefs. The RoY has the 30th highest total fertility rate of 4.45 children per woman, which will increase Yemen’s total population from 24 million in 2014 to approximately 60 million by 20506.  With the growing ubiquity of cellular phones worldwide, Yemeni citizens have access to information primarily through social media. Approximately 93% of Yemeni citizens have access to Facebook; 92% to WhatsApp; 41% to YouTube; 35% to Google Plus; and 31% to Instagram7. The growing access to this information serves as the primary rallying tool by key actors.

Yemen is a low-income country that has suffered a further weakened economic structure due to the conflict that began in 2014.  The ongoing war has halted Yemen’s exports, pressured the currency’s exchange rate, accelerated inflation, severely limited food and fuel imports, and caused widespread damage to infrastructure5. Previous to the conflict, Yemen found economic stability through the exportation of oil. In 2010, oil and gas made up 63% of government revenues8; however, the stability of this resource waned as oil reserves declined. Crude-oil production began in 1984, at 8,000 barrels a day, increased to over 438,000 barrels a day in 2004, and then decreased to 130,699 barrels in 20139.  Since the second quarter of 2015, oil and gas exports have come to a halt. Imports have also contracted, except for critical food and energy imports10.

As of 2013, sales from khat in Yemen were estimated at around $800 million annually, roughly six percent of the country's GDP and more than 40 percent of the agricultural GDP11. According to a 2007 World Bank report, khat was the second largest source of employment in Yemen, with one in every seven working Yemenis employed in producing and distributing the crop. According to the Yemeni agriculture ministry, khat earned $12,500 a hectare, around three times the revenue of any other crop12.  Moreover, consumption zakat (taxes) imposed by the Yemeni government provided $16 million in 201013; however, raising consumption taxes pushed an additional six percent of the population into poverty.  Yemen’s pre-war unemployment rate of 27% created significant problems for society since higher unemployment typically correlates with high crime statistics.  Although illegal in many countries, approximately 90% of males consume khat in Yemen where it is seen as tradition and social custom.


An examination of the political atmosphere, economic growth, social composition, information accessibility, and the ability to provide essential services through effective infrastructure variables provided a thorough understanding of the background within the Republic of Yemen.  With the environmental foundation established, the provocative analysis began. Identity groups, institutional performance of the government, and societal patterns determine societal grievances as well as the Opposing and stabilizing resilient conventions.  In response to either a society’s grievances or resistant variables, key actors within society at both the governmental and private level provide the motivation and means to mobilize large swaths of the populace to engage in political action or violence as necessary.  These key actors within society possess significant influence and can ensure or inhibit success for the Yemeni government.  Due to the RoY’s propensity to consume vast amounts of its fresh water supply, a significant and unmistakable trend emerged, which has the potential to positively influence the RoY’s sustainable development or result in additional violent conflicts.  Therefore, economic and social strategies developed that are designed to reduce this propensity for violent conflict and increase the Republic of Yemen’s capability to ensure sustainable and enduring peace and development.

Since the unification of Yemen in 1990, the political state of affairs has been unstable and in a near-constant state of turmoil.  Deteriorating economic conditions, political exclusion, and social injustices resulted in uprisings in 1991, 2011, and the current civil war.  Due to these failing conditions, Violent Extremist Organizations (VEOs) can successfully recruit youth, garner support from the local populace, and establish safe shelter within Yemeni borders.

Yemen is presently in a water scarcity crisis, which is defined by the United Nations as having less than 500 cubic meters of water per person per year13. Currently, Yemen’s population lives on only 140 cubic meters of water per person per year14. The World Bank reports that agriculture accounts for around 93% of water use15.

The Republic of Yemen is an arid country and with no perennial rivers; most water used for agriculture comes from rainwater, groundwater and seasonal springs. Yemen grows a variety of crops each needing a different amount of water such as sorghum, millet, coffee and khat. Compared to other crops, khat requires a vast amount more water to grow. Yemen is highly susceptible to climate change where the variability and intensity of rainfall can vary drastically.  Sudden floods or droughts have a damaging effect on agriculture in the country. In addition to the lack of water, Yemen is hampered with a scarcity of arable land.

Since Most of Yemen’s geography is desert, pasture or rangeland, only three percent is arable, which leaves minimal room for them to grow additional crops.  RoY primarily cultivates its crops in the western portion of the country under Shia control.  The lack of proper land for agriculture has led to small and fragmented farms thus making it very difficult to get adequate water to each of them.  Additionally, soil erosion and increased salinity is also reducing the amount of arable land. Finally, the large-scale inefficient irrigation systems and the excessive withdrawal of groundwater due to khat’s requirements has led to degradation and desertification of the arable land.

Agricultural success and production can be directly linked to access to water.  The farms that have easier and more access to water have much higher yields than those that do not.

Due to the inhumane conditions that existed in Yemen, the World Bank funded an US53.6M project to expand sustainable water supply and sanitation services and hygiene habits from 2001 to 201016. Prior to this project, there was little clean water and even less ways to properly dispose of human waste. This initiative included: providing clean water sources by building wells with diesel or electric pumps, spring protection, gravity supply, and rain water catchments. As for human waste sanitation, the project gave incentives to people to construct in-house bathrooms such as dry pit latrines, pour flush latrines, flush toilet and septic tanks. Additionally, health centers were built to help promote proper sanitation and education. Furthermore, depending on population density, one or two wastewater treatment systems were built and used as examples for later adaptations.  The project succeeded in areas and increased its access to proper sanitation, plumbing and well construction.

Currently, the RoY is experiencing rapid growth and increasing urbanization, which results in a highly-influenced and informed youth who are bombarded with targeted, positive and negative messaging campaigns through various mediums such as social media and radio.  As with all societies, family, peers, communities, economic conditions, and societal norms can also significantly influence an individual.

Ultimately, the stakeholders exert their direct and indirect influence over the growing population in an attempt to propagate their respective dogmas and advance their cause.  Therefore, an influence campaign that presents valid and potentially loaded information regarding the RoY’s dire water crisis and the accompanying, devastating impact that khat has on its water supply may persuade Yemeni youth to curtail their addiction.

However, khat has served as a social lubricant for the RoY for generations; with 73% of women and approximately 90% of men chewing khat, the aforementioned influence is certainly present17.  A country-wide survey in 2007 found that 57% of Yemenis chewed khat for at least 4-6 hours per day18.  Despite the social advantages, the potential side effects of khat include: mood changes, hyperactivity, anxiety, paranoia and manic behavior, and loss of appetite.  For some, chewing khat isn’t just a social pastime, it is an escape from their economic woes and daily struggles. However, to produce one daily bag of Khat, approximately 500 liters of water is required, which has led to a gradual and continuous decline in RoY’s water levels.


Due to the convoluted and indefinite civil war, the proposed strategies must occur post-conflict; therefore, several assumptions must be true.  First, the empowered government is receptive to political, economic, and social change.  Second, there is sufficient water remaining in RoY’s aquifers that the proposed strategies will sustain and restore Yemen’s water supply. Third, the government can provide adequate security, so the proposed strategies will not be disrupted due to political instability or internal strife.

As a recommendation, Yemen should create subsidies for the farmers similar to the Colombian government. In Columbia, the government subsidizes farmers to grow citrus fruits, coffee or beans instead of coca, the main ingredient in cocaine19. The subsidy ensures that legal crops provide farmers the same return on investment as coca.  Prior to the discovery and exploitation of khat, Yemen’s main export was coffee; therefore, due to coffee’s significant global transformation over the last few decades, the Yemeni government can foster a supportive entrepreneurial environment to spur economic growth.  Additionally, the government may subsidize other crops such as olives, which is also in high demand and consumes significantly less water than khat.

Yemen may also partner with multiple NGOs/IGOs in order to better develop the country and avoid chronic or acute humanitarian crises. Multiple organizations such as the United States’ Agency for International Development (USAID) or the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) provide a Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) program designed to improve a nation’s water quality and quantity.  For example, South Sudan’s development strategy partnered with UNOCHA and they built water resource infrastructure projects that included: irrigation development, re-use of drainage water/groundwater, preventive and canal maintenance, aquatic weed control and river channel development20. Proper irrigation systems combined with efficient and effective means to re-use drainage, rain, or groundwater allows the RoY to conserve and restore its aquifer levels. In addition, the partners would be able to provide Yemen with better water treatment facilities and drill more sustainable wells.

Finally, Yemen could partner with the UN or another agency to build a desalination plant since the country has an expansive coastline with easy access to the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. RoY’s principal supporter, Saudi Arabia, employs 27 desalination plants along its coasts and could provide the necessary funding and technical expertise needed to create multiple desalination plants along Yemen’s coastline.  The desalination plant would create fresh water from the ocean, which could be transported to farmers and towns in order to help alleviate the water shortages and augment existing aquifer levels.

To reduce khat usage and subsequently increase the RoY’s aquifer levels, a counter-narcotic messaging and educational campaign must be used in conjunction with the aforementioned economic strategy. Since the strategy is essentially centered upon marketing an ideological transition, the fundamental principles of marketing are vital to its success. The Yemeni government’s marketing concept is to understand the populace’s needs and reshape public perceptions of khat through education and utilize a cohort system to reduce anxiety and peer pressure. Partnerships with organizations such as the “Yemen without Khat Association” will be exceptionally beneficial in creating an anti-khat messaging campaign since local, influential leaders and organizations garner more respect than external agencies. Additionally, implementing an effective marketing mix is vital to the success of this campaign. The anti-narcotics campaign is the product, which is offered at no cost to the consumers and advertised primarily through social media and radio and leaflets at neighborhood markets. Maintaining the relationship with the populace is necessary to not only measure the success of the program but also to build trust and decrease resentment within the populace.


Ultimately, development requires a social, economic, and political transformation that expands a society’s options, creates opportunities to prosper, and reduces their vulnerability to exploitation from violent extremist organizations. However, change creates a struggle between the old, established ideologies and the new, imposed values, which are inherent in all societies and human relationships. This change creates innovation, inspires motivation, encourages partnerships, and endeavors to diminish injustice.

In order to sustain its supply of fresh water for future generations, the Republic of Yemen must willingly embark upon this revolutionary journey. Politically, the Yemeni government must address and incorporate the grievances from its disenfranchised population. Economically, the RoY must transition from utilizing 40% of its fresh water and a sizeable portion of its arable land to grow a non- contributable, mild narcotic to crops that can reduce starvation within its borders. Socially, the creation and endorsement of an anti-narcotic messaging campaign by the RoY government will provide further assistance.

End Notes

  1. Huffman, Tyler. "Half of Yemenis Live below Poverty Line." Al-Monitor. January 06, 2014. Accessed September 18, 2016.
  2. "Qat Habit Drains Yemen's Precious Groundwater." Middle East Eye. May 14, 2014. Accessed September 16, 2016.
  3. "Yemen." OCHA. Accessed September 21, 2016.
  4. "Yemen in 2016." Yemen. Accessed September 16, 2016.
  5. "The World Factbook: YEMEN." Central Intelligence Agency. Accessed September 21, 2016.
  6. "Yemen" Transparency International. Accessed September 20, 2016.
  7. Arab Social Media Report. 05OCT16.
  8. "Economy of Yemen." Fanack Chronicle. September 22, 2009. Accessed September 21, 2016.  
  9. "Yemen Overview." Yemen Overview. Accessed September 24, 2016.
  10. Pike, John. "Qat." Qat. May 08, 2011. Accessed September 01, 2016.
  11. "Qat Habit Drains Yemen's Precious Groundwater." Middle East Eye. May 14, 2014. Accessed September 16, 2016.
  12. "Running Out of Water in Yemen." UNICEF MENA. March 24, 2014. Accessed September 25, 2016.
  13. Heffez, Adam. "How Yemen Chewed Itself Dry." Foreign Affairs. July 23, 2013. Accessed September 29, 2016.
  14. "Scarcity, Decade, Water for Life, 2015, UN-Water, United Nations, MDG, Water, Sanitation, Financing, Gender, IWRM, Human Right, Transboundary, Cities, Quality, Food Security." UN News Center. Accessed September 26, 2016.
  15. Gatter, Peer, and Qahtan Yahya Al -Asbahi. Qat Policy Review Workshop. Report. World Bank. Accessed September 19, 2016.
  16. Mathur, Kavita. Report no. ICRR13698. ICR Review, World Bank. September 12, 2012. Accessed September 27, 2016.
  17. "Khat Chewing in Yemen: Turning over a New Leaf." WHO | Khat Chewing in Yemen: Turning over a New Leaf. Accessed September 26, 2016.
  18. Gatter, Peer, and Qahtan Yahya Al -Asbahi. Qat Policy Review Workshop. Report. World Bank. Accessed September 19, 2016.
  19. "Can Colombia Win the War on Drugs after Peace with the FARC?" Newsweek. August 25, 2016. Accessed September 21, 2016.
  20. "Kuwait Invites Bids for Doha Desalination Plant as Az-Zour Is 65% Finished." Water. Desalination Reuse. January 06, 2015. Accessed September 27, 2016.

About the Author(s)

David M. Wren is a career U.S. Army Officer.  He currently serves as the Civil Information Management Chief with the 83rd Civil Affairs Battalion.  He holds a B.S. in Applied Mathematics, Baylor University, Waco, TX, and a M.B.A. from Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY.