Saturday, September 01, 2012

Sana'a Going Dry

In a piece at Foreign Policy, Peter Salisbury explains Yemen's water woes through the lens of its capital, Sana'a.  He hits familiar themes such as the amount of water expenditure of the farming of qat, a highly profitable mild narcotic, as well as the lack of government controls:
"Most potable water in Yemen is produced from a series of deep underground aquifers using electric and diesel-powered pumps. Some of these pumps are run by the government, but many more are run by private companies, most of them unlicensed and unregulated. Because of this, it is nigh on impossible to control the volume of water produced. By some (conservative) estimates, about 250 million cubic meters of water are produced from the Sanaa basin every year, 80 percent of which is non-renewable. In recent years, the businessmen who produce the water have had to drill ever-deeper wells and use increasingly powerful pumps to get the region's dwindling water reserves out of the ground."
When I reviewed Sam White's book on the Ottoman Empire's environmental woes, I wondered if it might have applicable lessons for the Middle East today.  One thing I'm seeing is that, while there are increasing water shortages throughout the country, it might be worse in Sana'a and other inland urban areas than some rural ones, rendering inapplicable White's account of migration to the cities to escape bleak rural conditions.  In the Yemeni case, such out-migration to the countryside could be a temporary phenomenon, though I suspect in practice it would just lead to a faster crisis rate in the countryside.

What's really needed is some form of emergency development aid, and since water lies at the root of some of the resource shortages leading to the country's current turmoil, that can't wait until after political stabilization and the resolution of security issues to the satisfaction of the United States.  At the same time, without a stronger state water regime, lots of the aid could just wind up meeting the needs of qat farmers.  This is a vicious problem, but one we can't afford to ignore.

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