Long-term projects halted in Yemen water crisis

Capital Sanaa is one of the most water-scarce cities in the world

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Government projects to solve Yemen’s severe water shortage have been halted as long-term development plans are replaced by much-needed aid programmes, an adviser to the Minister of Water told The National.

In the war-torn country, where the legitimate government has been fighting Houthi militants for more than seven years, 70 per cent of the population — 20 million people — need humanitarian assistance. More than 15 million lack access to safe water and hygiene.

Local and international groups on the ground are working to launch several projects to improve water availability and quality before the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference, known as Cop26, in Glasgow, Scotland.

In September, the World Bank’s Yemen Emergency Human Capital Project, implemented by UN agency UNOPS, announced a $30 million project to improve sanitation and reform the water supply in parts of the country.

“The project will provide around 850,000 people with access to safer drinking water and improved wastewater collection and treatment services,” said Muhammad Usman Akram, director of the UNOPS Multi-Country Office.

Najib Mohammad Ahmad, an adviser to Yemen’s minister of water and environment, said the conflict’s devastating impact cannot be matched by efforts to curb it.

Yemen recorded the largest cholera outbreak in modern history when cases exceeded one million by the end of 2017.

Nothing can clean you as well as water does
Minister of Water and Environment advisor Najib Mohammad Ahmad

“The war has stopped everything,” Mr Ahmad told The National on Sunday.

“Nothing can clean you as well as water does. It is therefore certain that severe water shortages have affected hygiene and led to spreading diseases like cholera.”

The projects that have been stopped include strategic long-term plans to build and maintain infrastructure for the efficient gathering and distribution of water.

“Yemen relies mostly on groundwater. But water consumption is higher than what is available for use,” Mr Ahmad said.

Yemenis require about 3.5 billion square metres square of water a year, but only 2.5 billion is fed into the ground annually through rainfall.

Digging wells at random

Most of the rainfall usually goes into deserts or bodies of water such as the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea.

The Houthi-controlled capital of Sanaa is one of the world’s most water-scarce cities, a study by the Ministry of Water and Environment shows.

Agriculture accounts for more than 11 per cent of Yemen’s GDP and has suffered the most due to the water scarcity, use of primitive methods and the fractionalisation of the country’s government, a joint report by the Centre for Governance and Peace-building in Yemen and the Centre for International Development Issues Nijmegen in the Netherlands said in 2017.

“Yemen is known to be one of the poorest countries in terms of water. Some 93 per cent of water reservoirs are used for agriculture including the qat plant, which takes up 30 per cent of that amount,” Abdulqawi Al Sharabi, a Department of Planning official at the ministry told The National.

“People have resorted to digging wells at random to collect and retain water. The conflict and the subsequent fragmented government in the north and south means that maintenance works are difficult to achieve.”

This is reflected both in Houthi-controlled areas such as Sanaa and government-controlled Hadramout where, Mr Ahmad said, it is difficult to ascertain exactly how much water is in supply in underground reservoirs because of “weak follow-up services”.

Authorities “have no control”, Mr Al Sharabi said.

The vital and scarce commodity of water has also been used for leverage during the war.

In 2016, Human Rights Watch said Houthi guards were confiscating water, food and cooking gas from residents in Taez who were bringing goods to neighbourhoods under government control.

In 2013, officials sounded the alarm on Yemen’s water resources, which they said may not last the decade.

Mr Ahmad says the coming years will be “very difficult” for the country, which has one of the world’s largest population growth.

Updated: November 01, 2021, 1:00 PM