Yemen War – Water and the Houthi Homeland

By J. Millard Burr
Saturday, April 11th, 2015 @ 12:53PM

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Aden: Despite Saudi led coalition airstrikes on the city of Aden, Huthi rebels backed by Iran and other Shia states are continuously advancing in the city cause shortage of water for locals.

Multiple disasters are looming for Yemen.

One that is rapidly approaching is water shortage. Already, the per capita water availability in Yemen is the lowest in the world.

A 2005 study estimated the total annual water requirements of Yemen to be 3.4 billion cubic meters. “At the same time renewable sources, such as rain, can provide up to 2.5 billion cubic meters. There is, therefore, a deficit of 0.9 billion cubic meters, which has to come from the aquifers deep underground, which are progressively depleting, and may run dry by the time US President Barack Obama finishes his term and starts writing his autobiography! We know this because wells have to be dug deeper and deeper, many as deep as half a kilometer.” 

Well before a new chapter in the political history of Yemen was opened in 2014, there were indications that — politics and military ventures aide — the nation itself was on a treadmill to oblivion.  The 2005 study noted above provided a crucial warning that a resolution to the declining of the Yemen water supply in an arid region could not be postponed forever.

Unfortunately, the government was beleaguered by internecine warfare that involved Islamists in the south and the Houthi minority — a Zaidi Shia insurgency believed to have close ties to Iran — in the north.  The struggle that commenced in northern Sa’dah in 2004, was just one of many regional clashes that the government was forced to confront.  The result was that Sana’a was either too corrupt, ill disposed, or impoverished (take your pick) to either develop the infrastructure for or improve the primitive national water supply system.

In 2008 an NPR report signaled, “Already one of the poorest countries by many measures, this nation of roughly 22 million people has been struck by severe droughts and depleted water supplies in recent years.” Solutions had been posited, including a draconian idea broached in 2007 by Yemen minister for water and the environment Abdurrahman Al-Eryani; he urged the relocation of Yemenis from Sana’a to the Red Sea coast. As he put it then, “I am not an optimist. I think many of the city’s people will simply have to move away.”

Two years later, the liberal Global Majority’s very first E-Journal report warned that Yemen was in the midst of a severe water crisis exacerbated by, “high population growth, misguided agricultural development and the growth of Khat [Catha edulis – a shrub producing a stimulant drug ,native to East Africa and southern Arabia, widely used in Yemen], a lack of law enforcement to regulate water use, and., the crisis may soon reach catastrophic levels.”

Yemen and the Arab Spring

The situation proceeded without change when in January 2011, Yemeni protesters joined those of other nations in what came to be called the “Arab Spring.”  Street protests would lead to riots until, a year later, President Ali Abdallah Salih was ousted after 33 years of authoritarian rule.  Major General Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and the Islamist Islah party took power in Sana’a on 27 February 2012.

Islah itself was and remains a weak coalition of tribal and religious leaders, many of whom were tied to the international Muslim Brotherhood.  The Islah received financial support from Saudi Arabia for many years, and there was a promise of more support.  However, once in power President Hadi did little to end the endemic corruption that infected the country or reverse systemic economic failures.

Despite the change in leadership Yemen continued in turmoil: Its southeast was under perpetual attack by the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP); the north was a hectic antsiest of Shiite Houthi opposition that was spreading from their homeland in Sa’ada province to the south.

In an impoverished Yemen (per capita GDP $2,500 in 2011), seventy percent of the government’s revenue came from oil.  And that resource was both subject to sabotage and diminishing rapidly.  Even worse, a ragging inflation (10-20%) beggared a nation that had little to begin with. The Arab Spring that promised much in effect provided little.

One crisis that was allowed to fester was Yemen’s habitual water shortage.  Aside from the fact that there was little potable water available in the cities, the availability of the resource was in jeopardy, and in 2013 there were new predictions that Sana’a would face a severe crisis and the resource could “run dry in ten years.”

There was little new harvesting of the precious resource, and farmers who used about 90% of the resource had to drill much deeper to find water.  And of the water used in agriculture about half was dedicated to the cultivation of khat.

The situation was allowed to deteriorate as Sana’a itself was for the first time threatened by the Houthi rebels from the north. Finally, in September 2014, its Ansar Allah overran Sana’a, forcing President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee to south, and finally to the port city of Aden. By then the Houthi controlled Sa’ada Governorate (its homeland), and large parts of Amran, Al Jawf and Hajjah.

With that advance, the U.S. was placed, as the saying goes, “between a rock and a hard place.”  It had been providing the government drone support in its battle against the AQAP — which was also opposed by the Houthis; now it was being asked by Saudi Arabia to support attacks on the Houthis and return the Hadi government to power in Sana’a.

Any chance that the civil war within a civil war would be resolved soon ended when in January 2015 the Houthi movement rejected a 2014 tentative agreement proposed by regional and international elements to divide the country into six federally organized regions.  The Houthis were to take charge of Sa’ada, but its categorical rejection based on its occupation of surrounding governorates was a major blow to local and international efforts to reunite the divided country.  The Houthi rebels had pushed south into central and coastal Yemen and were actually poised to threaten the south and Aden port, Yemen’s economic

Houthi Homeland: Water Problems Persist

As the civil war continues, a very recent report provides a reminder that Yemen’s water problem, though forgotten for the moment, is not about to go away. 

Lost in the present, nearly forgotten is an important water report issued in 1999 that noted the diminution of water supply the length of the Sa’dah Plain, the Houthi homeland. Reading that study it is easy to visualize that the scarcity of water would account for the movement of thousands of impoverished Houthis south toward Sana’a, and even into the city itself.

Located about 150 miles north of Sana’a, the gently sloping Sa’dah Plain trends first to the east and then joins with a system of wadis that turn north and empty in the Rub al Khali (Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter).  Two decades ago water experts found that the over- exploitation of the groundwater resource had led to its depletion the length of the Sa’dah Plain.  The Sa’adh is termed “one of the major semi-arid highland basins of Yemen,” where irrigated agriculture is the chief economic activity.  Irrigation was introduced in the nineteen seventies with the extensive drilling for groundwater.  Two decades later, experts were warning that the reduced output of water wells jeopardized the entire region’s socioeconomic development.

As the experts saw it, the intermountain Sa’adah Plain illustrated, “all the different manifestations of groundwater problems in the country. It is a basin in seclusion as a closed water system.”  In general there are two rainy seasons: March-May and July-August.  Rainfall is most often sporadic with intense localized storms, and, “Evaporation far exceeds precipitation during most of the year.”  Still, severe droughts were uncommon when in the 1970s the governorate instituted widespread irrigation and rain fed agriculture was quickly eliminated. Unfortunately, the replenishment of groundwater has been minimal and there was no institutional or government help to resolve the problem.  In sum, farmers were left on their own to employ irrigation in a semi-arid region of burgeoning population growth.

In 1994, the census of Sa’dah governorate enumerated 482,000 people (about 200,000 of whom lived in the Sa’dah Plain). There were more than 2,500 active water wells, and the “annual rate of abstraction” from the region’s sandstone aquifer, “far exceeds the recharge rate.”  Also in 1994, some 98% of the water used was claimed by agriculture and already the demands for water far exceeded supply. Unfortunately, the experts also emphasized that the, “Development of an alternative conventional source of fresh water is not possible, and it is not viable to transport water from one basin to another in the Western Highlands of Yemen.

A decade later, the governorate population had increased to 695,000, and in 2012, it was estimated that it had some 863,000 people.  Thus, despite the great difficulties that were noted in the agricultural sector, in less than twenty years the population of Sa’dah governorate had nearly doubled. In short, the region’s agriculture output was unsustainable and its diminution had stimulated Houthi outmigration.


While the political struggle within Yemen dominates the news, it is well to recall that 13 million Yemenis, or some fifty percent of the population, are faced with the daily struggle to buy enough potable water and food to survive. And before 2015, when all of Yemen was impacted in internecine warfare, more than half of all Yemenis depended on humanitarian aid.  Simply put, while the armies pick over a rotting corpse there may be little left to feast on whether or not Yemen survives its present crisis.

Finally, regarding the issue of potable water and water for agriculture, there has been no recent improvement in the collection and storing of rainwater.  Still, the private drilling for groundwater, a finite water supply, has continued its frantic pace.  There are no good estimates on how long that process can continue. Still, thousands die each year as a result of water disputes, and reportedly the number is growing.  As for the capital Sana’a, there are a several estimates concerning just when it will run out of water; the most pessimistic 2017; the most optimistic, within a decade.

Either way, Yemen’s future is not a pleasant scenario to contemplate.


Categories: ACD/EWI Exclusive, Houthis, Iran, Oil, Saudi, Saudi Arabia, Shia, Shiite, Sunni, U.S. Foreign Policy, U.S. Policy, Water, Yemen

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