One of the regular podcasts that I listen to is ‘Reveal’, from the Centre of Investigative Reporting. And they have an old-ish episode called ‘Water Wars‘, which feels like a real world version of dystopian science fiction. And it revolves around Yemen’s civil war.
The episode is based on some wikileaks-released classified cables between the US State Department and Stephen Seche, the United States Ambassador to Yemen between 2007 and 2010. In those cables (which I found and read on wikileaks, but feel weird talking about), there is much concern about Yemen’s water crisis. And specifically, how it was leading to widespread social unrest.
Changes in Yemen’s Agriculture
Yemen used to be one of the world’s foremost coffee producers. In case you’ve ever wondered, the term ‘mocha’ derives from the Yemeni port of Mocha. And it’s probably also the reason that we’re such fans of arabica coffee beans. But over the last few decades, Yemen’s agricultural production has shifted away from coffee and grapes, and toward the production of qat, the leaves of an Arabian shrub that are chewed as a mild stimulant.
Some important facts:
- Qat plants require five times as much water as grapes, but can be harvested all year round.
- And importantly, the more water they receive, the more productive the plants are.
- So qat farmers really have no incentive to water their plants less – the more water they use, the more cash they generate.
Which meant that the farmers would flood their fields twice a month.
In 2010, it was estimated that 90% of Yemen’s water consumption was being used on small-scale agriculture, 50% of which was the production of qat. Even though that small-scale agriculture only counted for 6% of GDP.
The trouble with high-yield cash crops
As is often the case with high-yield cash crops, they attracted large vested interests. Yemen’s Water and Environment Minister at the time, Abdulrahman Al-Eryani, estimated that 99% of Yemen’s water extraction was unlicenced. According to Al-Eryani, there were over 800 drill rigs operating in Yemen in 2009. Compare this to Jordan, which only had three. Or India, with a population more than 50 times that of Yemen, that had only 100.
And if a country has hundreds of drillers extracting water from underground aquifers, flooding qat fields and then exporting that water as qat into neighbouring countries, then that country starts to run out of water.
In the 1970s, the water table of Yemen’s capital Sana’a was 30 metres below the surface. As of 2012, in some areas, the water table had dropped to 1,200 metres below the surface.
In February 2010, Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in testimony about Yemen to the US Congress:
“The failure to establish local water corporations in several governorates that historically have not received much support or social services from the central government has raised fear that a resurgent al Qaeda may seek refuge there.”
That is: the fear was that Sana’a would be the world’s first capital to run out of water. And the warning was that the lack of water would lead to social unrest and instability.
Both those things happened.
And then got worse, because the civil war led to shortages of the diesel required to pump water out of the remaining aquifers (of the 15 primary aquifers, all but two had run dry by 2015).
Today, 20 million Yemenis do not have access to clean water.
And it seems that the primary cause was not climate change.
Instead, it was the hunt for profit.