For the last seven years, Yemen has been suffering from a devastating civil war, leading to one of the worst humanitarian crises seen in recent history. The country has been pushed to the edge, and any more devastation might result in permanent catastrophic changes. The current damage as a result of the war is so severe that over 80% of the population—approximately 24 million people—are in dire need of aid, with children making up half of that staggering number. Yemen heavily relies on importation through its ports, where 90% of food supplies for the country come in. The destruction of critical infrastructure, including health and sanitation systems, has led to a deadly cholera outbreak, while the intentional blockade of Yemeni ports by the Saudi-led coalition in 2017 has led to a famine. All of these complications are further compounded by the current wartime economic crisis. Unfortunately, the imminent dangers of climate change are painting an even bleaker picture for the country’s future. A diminishing clean water supply is one of the most prominent and urgent climate emergencies for Yemen, as it threatens the livelihood of millions who are already suffering from disease and hunger.
Yemen is situated in the Middle East, which is known for its arid climate and is predicted to get even more hot and dry due to climate change. Throughout history, Yemenis have learned to achieve a delicate balance with their extreme environmental conditions, developing agriculture practices that suit the desert-like land they farm. Deep tube wells have recently allowed farmers to access aquifers at unprecedented rates, leading to a rise in cultivated farmland but a net decrease in the groundwater supply. The overall water availability in Yemen is estimated to be around 80 cubic meters per capita per year, but this number is shockingly below the World Bank’s threshold of 1000 cubic meters per capita per year for water poverty, designating it as one of the most water stressed countries in the world today. If no effective water management solutions can be implemented within the next few years, this number is expected to drop to fatal levels with the onset of temperature and precipitation changes due to climate change.
One of Yemen’s biggest causes of groundwater depletion is the cultivation of Qat. Qat or Khat is a naturally occurring addictive narcotic drug that is chewed regularly by over 90% of Yemeni men and 70% of Yemeni women. The plant has become a major economic staple of consumption. The high demand for Qat nationwide means that many farmers make their sole income off the sale of the simulant, and would be hesitant to give it up, especially in a period of economic and political turmoil. As the unrest in Yemen continues, more Yemnis are relying on Qat as a way of alleviating their stress and hunger, turning to the drug to dull the harsh impacts of a brutal civil war. The issue with this lies in the grim fact that Qat, while also leading to other health issues, uses up around 40% of the country’s already diminishing groundwater supply, taking away from resources that could be used for food production. Humanitarian organizations and experts have warned of the worsening and strenuous conditions on Yemen’s essential resources; in fact, many have made the disheartening prediction that Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, will be the first capital city in the world to run completely dry in just a few years.
Studies show that water shortages are the cause of around 70-80% of rural and tribal conflicts in the country, exacerbating the continual national-scale violence and persistent state of unrest that Yemenis are experiencing. Though these disputes may seem insignificant compared to the civil war, officials worry that such strife can snowball and feed into the overall violence of the country, potentially delaying the onset of a ceasefire or peace agreement.
Water management is one of the most pressing issues that the Yemeni government and the international community need to address. If supply continues to decrease at the current rate, experts fear that the country may be without water in just a few years. However, policies to resolve the issue cannot flourish when the state of the government remains unresolved. Currently, war and violence persist in Yemen, with no clear body of authority. As long as such conditions persist, no sweeping changes to national policy can even be researched, let alone implemented. Yet the looming hazards of climate change are only accelerating and jeopardizing Yemen’s access to water.
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