x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Alarm as water taps run dry

Yemen's government is struggling to cope with a major strategic, economic and humanitarian problem.

Khairyah Hasan Haza'a and her children must walk an hour to fetch water in Taiz, where there is a chronic shortage.
Khairyah Hasan Haza'a and her children must walk an hour to fetch water in Taiz, where there is a chronic shortage.

TAIZ, Yemen // It takes almost an hour for Khairyah Hasan Haza'a, 38, to walk the kilometre from her house to a public water pump in Taiz city to fill a 20-litre jug. "I fill the vessel four times during the day in Ramadan and if it is not enough, I go back at night and sometimes I have to fill it 10 times," said Mrs Haza'a. Mrs Haza'a was fetching water while fasting during the sweltering Ramadan days along with her two children. She said the water she was able to carry home, which is at the top of a hill, in the large jug was not enough for her 18-member family.

"It is really difficult for me to fetch the water and bring it up to the top of that hilly area," said Mrs Haza'a, adding that she has to take her children to a mosque in Taiz for their daily showers. Water scarcity is reaching emergency levels across Yemen and the problem is particularly acute in Sana'a and the province of Taiz, 260km north of Sana'a. Only 60 per cent of Yemenis who live in urban areas are connected to public water services. Others depend on private water tankers or vendors. In rural areas, only 45 per cent get their water from the state, while the rest get it the old-fashioned way: fetching it from rainwater harvesting systems, springs and wells.

Some people in Taiz city and Sana'a buy their water from private lorry providers, but people like Mrs Haza'a cannot afford to pay US$10 (Dh36) for the standard 3,000-litre truckload of water which people store in tanks and which usually last between two weeks and a month, depending on the size of a family. Taiz province, which has a population of more than three million, started facing a serious water shortage in the mid-1990s as the public water supply was available only every 20 days. It is now even worse and water is supplied by the government just once every 45 days, compared to every two weeks in Sana'a.

This has forced local people to collect water from mosques, which usually have their own supply, and wells. The increasing shortage has pushed those who can afford it to build their own tanks that they fill with purchased water. "It is one of the strategic and humanitarian problems we are facing. Taiz will perish if the water shortage is not solved," said Hamud al Sufi, the governor of Taiz. Yemen's per capita usage of renewable water sources is just 125 cubic metres, compared with an average of 1,250 cubic metres in the Middle East and 7,500 cubic metres in the world.

"It is one of Yemen's main challenges. It is going to affect our sustainable development and maybe our existence," said Mohammed al Hamdi, the deputy minister of water and environment. Renewable fresh water, according to government reports, amounts to 2.5 billion cubic metres, while the total annual consumption is 3.4bn cubic metres. The total volume of water used will jump to about 4.6bn cubic metres in 2025, when Yemen's population will have doubled to 44 million.

"We are relying on groundwater, and irrigated agriculture is expanding and the result is that we are facing the depletion of some of the aquifers. This means that we do not have enough groundwater to satisfy the growing population," said Mr al Hamdi. The scarcity of water resources, according to a recent World Bank report on Yemen's economy, is aggravated by rapid population growth of 3.2 per cent annually, and a similarly fast-paced depletion of groundwater, which has been exceeding the re-fill rate in the country's major basins.

Surface water and renewable aquifers are failing to provide enough water for both domestic use and agriculture, which sucks up more than 90 per cent of all available water. Most of Yemen's arable land is used to grow khat, a mildly narcotic stimulant chewed for pleasure by many throughout the day, rather than food staples or other exportable crops. "Khat cultivation has a major impact ... as it consumes 40 per cent of the water while it does not contribute to food security. This is a serious problem that requires a national vision and a solid legal framework to address it," Mr al Hamdi said.

Experts also blame poor resource management and the rampant drilling of illegal wells. "The situation is so serious and there are indicators that it could be a tragedy in the near future. The depletion of water resources through conventional techniques of irrigation is horrific," said Ali Hasan, a senior expert at Sana'a Basin Water Management Project, a five-year old Yemeni government initiative supported by the World Bank and other donors.

He said farmers used to depend on surface water and rain, but with the introduction of widely available drilling technology, they began to dig deep wells. He said the withdrawal of groundwater through unofficial wells is one of the main reasons for water depletion and the most crucial problem that must be addressed in any new water management plan. There are more than 70,000 wells nationwide, most of which are illegal.

Mr Hasan said the objective of the project was to make water providers and users aware of the real cost of water to society and to promote community participation in water management. "Our aim [is] to involve the people and farmers in managing groundwater through the use of modern techniques of irrigation. It took us time to convince farmers to use new methods for irrigation and we paid 75 per cent of the cost," he said. "Part of the solution should be enforced legislation banning drilling".

Landowners are supposed to obtain a permit to drill new wells but the sector is poorly regulated. According to the Shoura council report released in May 2008, most of the wells were drilled without the consent of the authorities and were overseen by influential tribal leaders who are beyond the reach of the law. The dire need for water is also fuelling tribal conflicts. One person was shot dead and three were wounded, two of them police, during water protests on August 24 in the city of Aden.

Desalinating seawater will be expensive, at $7 per litre, according to the water ministry. However, this seems to be the only solution for Taiz, a city of 400,000 which has a daily water shortfall of 40,000 cubic metres. "We have carried out studies and workshops and we concluded that desalination of sea water is the only option we have. We are, however, working on other rain harvesting systems including building dams," said Mr al Sufi.

The government has agreed, along with the private sector, to jointly fund the project, which will cost about $300 million. It will take between two to three years to complete since the start of implementation, according to Mr al Sufi, though no date has yet been set to begin construction. However, the government has failed so far to allocate any funds for its contribution. "We have not been informed that the fund has been made available, which has delayed our tendering procedures. We are concerned that if the government does not provide its part of the funding, the private sector might stop building the [desalination] station," said Mr al Sufi.

malqadhi@thenational.ae