While Yemen is battling poverty, hunger, terrorism and widespread instability, water, or rather the lack of it, is threatening to jeopardize the government's attempts to move its country away from the grip of misery.
Recent satellite images captured by NASA’s twin Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment - GRACE - revealed significant water loss over the past six years in the Middle East region.
Analysts have warned that the Arabian Peninsula water problem could soon become a global security issue as instability and violence will spread through the region, putting governments under pressure.
“GRACE data show an alarming rate of decrease in total water storage in the Tigris and Euphrates river basins, which currently have the second fastest rate of groundwater storage loss on Earth, after India,” says Jay Famiglietti, the principal investigator of the study from the University of California, Irvine, quoted by NASA.
According to the study, the majority of the water lost — approximately 73 million acre feet — was caused by reductions in groundwater.
Yemen like Iraq has for many years discarded the effects and repercussions its "careless" water policy pumping is having on the environment and the nation's underground aqua-reserves; authorizing individuals and companied to dig out wells to keep up with demands instead of looking at ways to preserve water.
According to a 2012 Yale study, the drought stunted agriculture in the Tigris and Euphrates river basins, caused thousands of people to flee Iran, eastern Syria, and northern Iraq.
In Yemen, where irrigated land tripled between 1970 and 2000, the capital, Sana’a, has come under severe water stress. A 2010 report by the Mckinsey Institute forecasts that if water consumption in the Sana’a basin is not controlled, the city could run out of water by 2020.
One could only imagine what exodus Yemen will have to witness if indeed its capital was to shrivel down under an implacable sun, its people forced to flee to greener pastures.
A study conducted by Maplecroft finds that of the top 20 countries suffering extreme or high water stress, 19 are in the Middle East and North Africa - MENA - region, among which Yemen.
Yemen's main problem lies in its unsustainable water extraction policy and consumption. Like its neighbor Saudi Arabia allowed its underground reserves to be pillage without any form of planning or regulations, setting up the nation for a catastrophe of monumental proportion.
Already the poorest country of the Arabian Peninsula with 40% of its population having been cataloged as at food risk by the World Food Program in 2012, Yemen cannot afford to lose its ability to produce food.
Already Saudi Arabia will have to stop producing wheat in 2016 because it lacks the water resources; left to rely on import to supply its national market.
And while desalination has often been presented as a viable and long term solution to Yemen and the region's water problems, studies have proven the impurities extracted from the water end back in the sea are threatening marine life, which in turn affects fishing.
Danger of water shortages
Beyond the environmental impact of water depletion, a lack of water will become problematic in a region where population is steadily rising.
According to the U.S Intelligence Community Assessment of Global Water Security, by 2030, the world’s water needs will exceed current sustainable water supplies by 40 percent, which could generate widespread instability and contribute to state failure in certain regions, including in the Middle East.
Another report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies - CSIS - states: “the real wild card for political and social unrest in the Middle East over the next 20 years is not war, terrorism, or revolution — it is water. Conventional security threats dominate public debate and government…water is the true game-changer in Middle Eastern politics.”
While water has played a limited role in prompting unrest, permanent water loss will change water’s role in potential internal conflicts as government will have to guarantee and guarantee access to potable water.
Sana'a already witnessed in 2012 conflicts in the capital, Sana'a as refugees and local residents battled over access to public water in impoverished neighborhoods. Yemeni nationals accused African refugees of stealing their water. While the incidents were dealt with and no harm came to anyone, water could become the most prized and valuable commodity in the region, and generate tensions between communities, countries and regions.
In February 2011, Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey noted “In the future the main geopolitical resource in the Middle East will be water rather than oil."
Although Yemen now recognizes it needs to address its water problem by setting in place regulations which will slow down depletion and better utilized its aqua-resources, time is playing against the impoverished nation.
Yemen for example will have to prioritize its agriculture and think of riding itself from Qat - leafy green narcotic which the majority of Yemenis enjoy chewing - The plant consumes as much as four time the amount of water a plant of tomatoes would use to reach maturity, making it a national liability as far as water is concerned.