Water woes threaten Yemen's anti-Qaeda drive

Sanaa could become the first waterless capital in the world


Impoverished Yemen is reeling under the threat of al-Qaeda, northern Shiite rebels and southern secessionists, but a lack of water is putting its ancient capital at even greater risk, experts say.

Within a decade, or even less, Sanaa could become the first waterless capital in the world, they warn, adding the outlook is also bleak for the rest of this parched country where wells in some regions are already dry.

A conference in London on Wednesday will discuss Yemen's anti-terrorism drive, but it is unclear whether the water woes that experts say are likely to fuel more insecurity are on the agenda.

Water disputes and riots in this largely tribal nation could squeeze Yemen's struggling government, undermining its ability to remain focused on an increasingly alarming security situation.

The United States and major European powers, concerned about the possible fallout from a resurgent al-Qaeda, have been pressuring Sanaa to uproot the Islamic militants. Yemen says it needs arms, training and funds to do that.

"The situation in Yemen is rapidly deteriorating in the face of several challenges, all of which have the potential to develop into a serious crisis within the next five years," the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said in a report last year.

It said roughly 80 percent of conflicts in Yemen are over water, which is being used more rapidly than it can be replenished. Water extraction rates in Sanaa are estimated at four times that of replenishment, it added.

"Sanaa will be the first capital in modern history to run dry," the Carnegie report said.

Dierk Schlutter, a water specialist with the humanitarian German Development Service, said that could happen in less than a decade.

The groundwater feeding Sanaa "will be exhausted in 2015 or 2017, one cannot say exactly," Schlutter said.

Sanaa will be the first capital in modern history to run dry

Carnegie report

Water prices

He added the government could decide to supply the capital with water tankers, but that would raise water prices, which in some districts are already as high as in European cities like Paris.

Experts warn prices rises are likely to ignite public anger. For the past few years water, riots have been common, especially in the south.

Yemen is one of the driest countries on the planet, with per capita water share at about 125 cubic metres (4,400 cubic feet), against a global average of 7,500 cubic metres (265,000 cubic feet).

Per capita water share under 1,000 cubic meters (35,000 cubic feet) retards development, according to the United Nations. Yemen remains the poorest and most underdeveloped country of the Arabian Peninsula.

Sanaa, built at an altitude of 2,300 metres (7,550 feet), has a notoriously precarious water supply. Some districts have no supply at all, and others have taps that stop every 20 days.

As a result, hundreds of private drillers suck out water from depleting wells and sell them in water tankers and jerry cans big and small.

Mohammad Maayad, a 27-year-old private driller, said that "now I drill at depths of 480 metres (1,574), but when I started I only used to drill down to 400 metres (1,312 feet)" to find water.

Yemen's water table is dropping at about two metres (6.6 feet) per year, the Carnegie report warned.

"As of January 2009, Water and Environment Ministry officials estimate that more than 800 private drill rigs are operating in the country," the report said.

It added that in contrast, there are only three in all of Jordan and just 100 in India, whose population is more than 50 times that of Yemen's 24 million people.

Qat problems

Pulling the water from the ground is all but free for drillers like Maayad, because the diesel fuel they need for their pumps is subsidized by the government and sold for a paltry 17 cents a liter (68 cents per gallon).

Officials and international experts blame Yemen's water problem largely on qat, a mild narcotic plant that is chewed by the majority of Yemeni men.

"The problem is qat," said a European expert who did not wish to be identified, adding about half the water used for agriculture goes to growing qat. Water used for agriculture accounts for about 90 percent of all consumption, he said.

"Qat fetches four times more than coffee, and the plantations are often in the hands of tribal chiefs or the so-called 'qat mafia,' who are too powerful for the government to go after," he added.

A 2002 law aimed at curbing water depletion bans private drilling, but it is rarely applied, Schlutter said.

He said the solution to the water issue was to ban qat cultivation, but acknowledged that would be impossible because qat is so entrenched in Yemeni society.

"It's like trying to ban beer in Germany or wine in France," he added.

"But five to 10 years from now they will have to decide: chew qat or give water to their children," Schlutter said.

Qat fetches four times more than coffee, and the plantations are often in the hands of tribal chiefs or the so-called 'qat mafia,' who are too powerful for the government to go after

European expert