- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 15, 2009

SAN’A, Yemen | Five years ago, Hussein Saleh al-Ayni’s well was full.

He grew onions, garlic and other vegetables in his garden and sold them for $30 a day.

Now, a slight breeze blows beige dust where crops once grew. An old tire and a yellow bottle of cooking oil poke out of the mud at the bottom of the well. Mr. al-Ayni drives a motorcycle taxi and supports his wife and two children on about $5 a day.

“I just make enough for daily food,” he said.

Water shortages can be felt in every corner of Yemen’s capital. Gardens are dry, and water trucks crisscross the city to deliver to households that can afford it. Those who cannot send women and children to line up at mosque spigots.

With well levels dropping as much as 65 feet a year, many Yemenis and outside specialists predict that San’a will become the first capital city to run out of groundwater. The shortages pose a special challenge in an impoverished nation that is already fighting two insurgencies and al Qaeda.

“The problem is not in the future,” said Saleh Aziz, a Yemeni farmer who heads the Hamdan Water Association. “We are suffering now.”

Ten years ago, there was 20 percent more rainfall in San’a — 9.84 inches per year compared to 7.87 inches now, according to a water resource specialist at San’a University, Abdullah Al-Numan.

Other parts of Yemen receive less than a third of the water they received a decade ago, dropping from 11.81 inches a year on average to 3.93 inches, he said.

When rain does come, the timing is unpredictable and the concentration so heavy that the water’s value is lost, he said. In some areas, the entire yearly rainfall can now happen in a matter of days. Last year 58 people were killed and 20,000 people fled their homes in October floods.

The drought extends into East Africa and is the worst in the region since 2000, according to the Economist magazine. Yemen is among about 50 countries, mostly in the Middle East and Africa, that are facing water shortages owing largely to population increase and climate change. One in six people on the planet do not have enough clean water to drink. By 2025, the United Nations predicts, about two-thirds of the world’s population will live in areas where water is scarce.

In Yemen, most homes do not have running water and about a third of the population of 22 million has no access to safe, clean water, according to the U.N.

International efforts to slow the crisis in Yemen have failed, according to Ramon Scoble, a water-resource specialist for the German development agency GTZ.

The United States, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and the World Bank pump tens of millions of dollars into Yemeni water projects each year. But a lack of government will and capability, coupled with a population that is largely uneducated about water issues and resistant to change, have crippled efforts to build a sustainable water system, he said.

In the capital, Mr. Scoble estimates that the population consumes 10 to 20 times the water replenished by rainfall.

“There are families out there that are literally drinking sewage here in San’a,” he said.

The future looks even bleaker. Yemen’s population is expected to double in the next 20 years. Climate change could mean even less rainfall for a country afflicted with drought for years.

Three current armed conflicts in Yemen, while not directly caused by water shortages, are a sign of the times, Mr. Scoble said. Government forces are battling a Shi’ite Muslim insurgency in the north, secessionists in the south and al Qaeda adherents in the ungoverned countryside.

Water protests are also turning violent. In late August, one person was killed and three were injured in a riot after water access was cut in several districts in the southern port city of Aden.

Besides the growing population and diminished rainfall, rapid urbanization, traditional farming practices and plain old waste are to blame for the crisis, according to Saleh al-Dubby, director of the San’a Basin Water Management Project, which is funded by the World Bank.

As villages dry out, people flock to the cities, further taxing already strained resources. And because city planners cannot keep up with the influx, families dig their own toilets, polluting the groundwater.

Those who remain in arid rural areas buy water from trucks. Farmers say the price of water has tripled in the past four years, and the quality of life in Yemen, already one of the world’s poorest countries, is dropping as fast as the water table.

But it is difficult to convince farmers to adopt modern irrigation systems, Mr. al-Dubby said. Farmers, accustomed to flooding their fields many times a year, have a hard time believing that drip-irrigation systems will grow their crops.

“If I am a farmer, I can’t imagine that will be enough for my plants,” he said.

The most profitable crop in Yemen - khat, a mildly narcotic leaf that is wildly popular here — consumes about a third of the country’s water supply, maybe more.

Most Yemeni men spend hours a day chewing the leaves, which saps productivity in every sector, including the government, Mr. Scoble said. The national addiction also makes farmers and government officials reluctant to change.

“We’re in Yemen, and almost everything is ‘insh’allah, bukra’ [“God willing, tomorrow”], except [khat] o’clock,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Yahiya al-Hubaishi, a khat farmer, picked leaves off his trees and added them to the tennis-ball sized wad in his cheek. Mr. al-Hubaishi, who also grows grapes and tomatoes in a rocky valley on the outskirts of the capital, said he floods his fields about 13 times a year and that no one has suggested he abandon this traditional method of irrigation.

“The water will not finish,” he said. “There is still rain.”

But experts say the groundwater will disappear if these practices continue. Even if Yemen could afford to build desalination plants, that would not provide enough water to support agriculture, the mainstay of an overwhelming majority of Yemenis.

Increasing unemployment could boost al Qaeda recruitment in the country of Osama bin Laden’s father’s birth and produce a host of other ills, from mass migration to food shortages to crippling women’s rights.

Johan Kuylenstierna, a specialist on water issues for the U.N., notes that millions of women and girls in water-scarce countries walk for hours a day to fetch water. They carry it home balanced on their heads in 45-pound jerry cans, sometimes climbing mountains late at night.

Girls miss school to collect water and often drop out when they reach puberty because there are no gender-specific toilets, or no toilets at all, he said. Women with no bathrooms go to the outskirts of villages for privacy and are often victims of rape or other attacks.

“You’re outside alone, unprotected,” Mr. Kuylenstierna said. “You are a very easy target.”

Malik al-Amari, who drives a water truck in San’a, moved to the city from a distant village that is now close to uninhabitable. Five years ago, a pump drew water from a local well 24 hours a day. Now, the pump runs dry after two hours, he said.

But villagers are still not conserving water, Mr. al-Amari said, as he leaned against his pink-and-blue-painted metal water truck. He glanced at a crowd of noisy children climbing on his truck, and crossed his arms.

“I’m scared for the whole country,” he said.

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