Water, Food, Energy, Qat and Conflict: Yemen

23 April 2012 FDI Team

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Dr Paul Sullivan

FDI Associate

Key Points


  • Yemen is one of the most water-short countries on the planet.
  • The increased cost of water drilling and pumping has driven farmers, who use well over 90 per cent of the water in Yemen, towards the production of qat, a mildly stimulating narcotic.
  • Yemen has had to import increasing amounts of food, yet is seeing its major foreign exchange source, oil exports, rapidly decline. It will soon be a net importer of oil.
  • Yemen is located in a vital strategic area and that makes it a country of great importance.



As Yemen hurtles towards being a failed state, and this seems increasingly more likely, it is important to look at some of the resource drivers behind this situation. One of the most important is water. Connected to that are food and energy.


Yemen is one of the most water-stressed countries on earth. It may be the first country to have to move its capital city, Sana’a, due to the water table dropping so rapidly. The city’s wells need to be continuously drilled deeper just to keep up.

Yemenis are extracting more water from the ground than the rains can replenish. In some places, the rains are weak, but the water extraction remains strong. Yemenis that live above renewable sources of groundwater are the lucky ones.

Non-renewable groundwater accounts for as much as ten per cent of the water use in Yemen. This is not as bad as in Libya, which gets 70 per cent of its water from non-renewable sources, or Saudi Arabia, where about 50 per cent comes from non-renewable sources, but it is still rather bad.

The western hills and mountains of Yemen receive in region of 500-800 millimetres of rain per year, according the United Nations. This would be a good thing if the rains were better managed, but often the rain floods the streets and land and then flows away from where it is needed. Alternatively, it simply evaporates.

Yemenis also use a lot of spate irrigation (flood irrigation) by trying to control and redirect the waters through wadis and other channels. Yemen has built many small dams to try to capture the water, but more could be done. Desalinisation is at its early stages and mostly happens in Aden, on the southern coastline. For a poor country, significant desalinisation, which Yemen does and will need, is not a viable option without considerable help from the outside.

In addition, most of the population is located in the hills and mountains far from the sea. Either the water needs to be moved from the coast to the places where much of the population is, or the population needs to be moved towards the coast. Either way could prove to be very expensive and very disruptive.

On the coastal lowlands by the Red Sea, in the Tihamah region, rains are very sparse, at about 50mm per year. The climate of the Tihamah is brutal, especially in the summer months with very high humidity and temperatures above 50 degrees Celsius. Trying to move highlanders to here could be near impossible. The Rub al Khali, or “Empty Quarter”, which Yemen shares with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, is empty for a good reason. It gets almost no rain and has no agricultural potential. It is hot, sandy and inhospitable. This leaves the coastal areas in the south, and moving a large population to there could be a serious problem, not just logistically, but also socially, culturally, and more. It could also bring to the fore tribal tensions. Yemen remains a tribal society.

So, where will most Yemenis move to when the water runs out? The water will not likely entirely run out. It still rains in Yemen, but those rains are not replenishing the water table as water use increases. Over the long run, if nothing is done, there could be attempted migrations to Oman and Saudi Arabia, which are also water-short countries. Saudi Arabia has strict migration controls and Oman hardly could absorb the numbers of people that might possibly move.

Even longer distance movements to other parts of the Arab world, the European Union, and further seem hardly likely given controls and the likely resultant increase in the enforcement of people-smuggling laws.  

The better and more reasonable answer, aside from such migrations, is to move the populations that are heading towards, and those already at, extreme water stress toward the coastlines and desalinisation-based new cities and towns. As already stated, however, this could cause serious disruptions and stress.

Then there are the technical solutions that may help to mitigate the problems over time, but that do not seem to be the overall solution. These would include better management and pricing of water, more water reuse and the development of water treatment plants. The water that is wasted needs to be captured and stored properly.

There is also the culturally difficult policy of trying to keep population growth in check. The major driver of the water problems in Yemen is population growth. How that population uses the water can help to determine how much time Yemen has before drastic measures are needed.

A combination of social, economic, technical and educational policies may mitigate Yemen’s water problems over time, but they may also just be postponing the day when large population movements will be needed. Hopefully, this can be done in a peaceful way that can help benefit those Yemenis that need to move. Not all Yemenis may need to move, but the numbers could be staggering if changes are not put in place very soon.

Only about seven per cent of Yemen’s land is cultivable. Only about half of that is cultivated. This is a tough place to live, grow crops, and have enough to drink.

Yemen’s population has been growing on this resource-scarce land. In 1960, the population was about 5.1 million. By 1970, it was 6.1 million and 12 million by 1990. It is now 24 million.

About 70 per cent of the Yemeni population is rural and spread across well over 100,000 villages. Many Yemenis live in remote locations with declining water tables and declining food production.

A huge swathe of the population of Yemen has had to rely on delivery of water by truck. In addition, those deliveries have been often occurring every 40-45 days or so. The per capita access to water for the average Yemeni is one of the lowest in the world. It is only about 130 cubic metres per year.

Often, the middle and upper classes in the cities have access to government water sources, sanitation and pipelines into their houses. The poor in the villages of rural Yemen, and many in the slums in the cities, often do not have such access. Getting the water delivered by truck is more expensive than by pipeline, especially to remote villages that are running dry.

Overall, however, this is a country where the costs of water have increased drastically in the last few years due to hectic and deeper drilling for water (sometimes to 2,000 metres or more) and increasing fuel costs, especially during the worst part of the rebellion, of the water pumps and truck deliveries.

It seems that everyone in Yemen is paying higher and higher prices for water, but the poor – and about 40-50 per cent of Yemen makes less than US$2 per day – spend a greater proportion of their income on water than others. For the poor, an increase in the price of water by 30 times or more, which happened in some places during the depths of the rebellion, was a big hit to their wallets.

For the poor in Yemen, as in much of the rest of the world, as much as 50-70 per cent of their incomes go to food, water and energy. Food and energy prices were also sharply increasing during the rebellion. They are still high in the instability and scarcity that remain. The life of the average Yemeni seems to be getting harsher in the face of a seemingly inevitable loss of quality of life and standard of living.

Over the years, even without the rebellion, increased water costs have forced Yemeni farmers to find cash crops that are more profitable. They have turned to qat, a mild narcotic that is chewed as a stimulant. 

Over 90 per cent of all water used in Yemen is by farmers. About 60 per cent of that water is used to grow qat. Many farmers, who used to grow wheat, apricots, sorghum and more, have turned to growing qat. Less food produced in a country with a population growth rate of about 2.7 per cent means more imported food. Each Yemeni woman has, on average, about five children.

One of the more egregious costs of the qat habit in Yemen is the loss of food crops. Contrary to what many may think, there are potentially significant physical and psychological health effects from the overuse of qat. Surely, having a chew of qat over talks of politics and business has been a part of life in Yemen for centuries. But the overuse of qat, and the almost day-long use of it by some, are causing a draining of the aquifers, pushing food crops aside, and are likely leading to a less productive workforce than otherwise would be. Increasing consumption of qat could also lead to higher cancer rates and other health problems.

Imports of food into Yemen are costing the country dearly. About 75-80 per cent of all food is imported.

Given that Yemen’s rapidly declining oil production accounts for about 30 per cent of its GDP, about 90 per cent of hard currency earnings and more than 70 per cent of government revenues, one wonders how, in the future, Yemen will pay for its food and other imports, and for its government and more.

Natural gas production is growing. Yemen has an LNG liquefaction plant to export the gas. However, its reserves are rather small by international standards. Natural gas will not carry the country far into the future.

Yemen has little else in industry. Agriculture is the main source of employment for over 50 per cent of the population – and it is being driven towards the qat trade. In addition, the declining water table is an existential threat to many farms.

To say that things are not looking good for Yemen with rapidly declining water resources, water waste and misuse, the draining of land and water toward the qat trade, the decline of its oil fields and more, is a vast understatement.

Inflation is hitting hard. Instability has been rampant. The rule of law is mostly lacking. Corruption is vast. Many of the poor in the villages see little of the oil and other wealth. Inequality is also vast. 

The world needs to look more at Yemen for more reasons than just the humanitarian dimension. If leaders and strategists think it is a haven for terrorists, smugglers and pirates now, just wait until the water, food, energy, employment, and other situations get worse. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula could have a stronger foothold in Yemen if the country hurtles more toward failure. This could be a real problem not just for Yemen, but for everyone.

In addition, Yemen’s coast is on one of the world’s major shipping channels. Failed Somalia is on the other side. Between Yemen, Djibouti and Eritrea is the “Gate of Tears”, the Bab el-Mandeb, through which passes about six to eight per cent of all cargo traffic and three to four million barrels a day of oil. This is a narrow channel for important global traffic in an increasingly unstable part of the world.

Furthermore, if there are any significant problems with the Strait of Hormuz, one of the potential outlets for Saudi oil is via the pipeline systems that go from the eastern oilfields to the western ports. Even with drag reduction agents (DRAs), these pipelines may not have more than six to eight million barrels per day going through them. There is also the problem of Saudi Arabia’s western ports not being able to handle all of the new DRA-enhanced crude flows. Importantly, much of the oil exported from Saudi Arabia goes to Asia. This oil would have to come out of western Saudi ports via the Bab el-Mandeb to Asia. Looking at the map, and thinking about where Yemen might be heading, does not make this a comforting thought.

In a recent article I wrote for Al Arabiya, I coined the phrase “Yemenighanistan”. Given Yemen’s strategic location near Saudi Arabia, shipping traffic, the Horn of Africa and more, Yemen could be a far bigger problem in the future than even Afghanistan has been in the past.

Wake up world. Have a cup of cool, clear water, and nice, thick piece of warm bread in a warm house and think about those in Yemen who struggle to get even a little of that – and where those struggles might be heading them towards. Now think of the following: about 45 per cent of the population of Yemen is under 15 years of age. What will the future bring for them, and what will Yemen bring to the world’s future?




About the Author: Dr Sullivan is Professor of Economics at the National Defense University and Adjunct Professor of Security Studies and Adjunct Professor, Science, Technology and International Affairs at Georgetown University, Washington DC.






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