Favouring Progress: Yemen’s Water Scarcity Dilemma of the 21st Century

Our RWSN Guest blogger Muna Omar takes a critical look at the issue of dwindling water supply in Yemen’s capital city

The population of Sana’a, the capital city of Yemen, depend on deep wells that are usually dug to a maximum depth of 200 meters for their drinking water. The wells draw on a cretaceous sandstone aquifer northeast and northwest of the city, with a third of the wells operated by the state-owned Sana’a Local Corporation for Water Supply and Sanitation drilled to 800 to 1,100 meters. The combined output the corporation’s wells barely meet 35% of needs of Sana’a growing population which includes displaced people, asylum seekers, refugees and other newcomers.

Public piped water delivery is once every 40 days to some houses, while others don’t receive piped water at all. Sana’a’s population is thus supplied either by small, privately owned networks, hundreds of mobile tankers and water from people’s own private wells. As water quality has degenerated, privately owned kiosks that use a water filtration method to purify poor-quality groundwater have spread in Sana’a and other towns. Many people rely on costly water that is provided by private wells supplying tankers. These tankers don’t really consider appropriate cleaning, so the quality of the water is questionable.

Despite the challenges with pumping due to a shortage of fuel and with rising prices, private well owners are trying to capture the remains of the valuable groundwater resources before their neighbours do. Coupled with the on-going war, drought sees Yemen facing a major water crisis. Water table data is based on old research which can be challenging to verify now. Given the data and the current severe situation as water use exceeds aquifer recharge, it is estimated that the water table drops by approximately 2-6 feet annually.

Although Sana’s groundwater is probably the best water in Yemen, it is considered below acceptable standards for human consumption as water infrastructure has been damaged by warplanes and the sanitation workers went on strike because they didn’t get their salary. The latter left plenty of garbage on the streets that led to contamination of drinking water supplies. Meanwhile wastewater began to leak out into irrigation canals and contaminate drinking water supplies. Inadequate attention to groundwater pollution has directly affected the quality of Sana’a’s drinking water supplies.

It Yemen, as a whole, it is estimated that about 14.5 million people don’t have sustainable access to clean drinking water. Inadequate water supply has affected the country with the worst outbreak of cholera in the human history. Over 1 million suspected cases of cholera have been reported in Yemen from 27 April 2017 to present day. Other water-borne diseases include a recent peak in diphtheria that reached 1,795 probable cases with 93 Associated Deaths and a case fatality rate (CFR) of 5.2% by 19 May 2018.

Yemen’s water problem is not only immediate with groundwater resources under pressure as never before to meet not only drinking water needs, but also demands for irrigation. In Yemen, the pressures of climate change, demographic change and the on-going conflict place an immense burden on professionals working in the country. The enormity of the urgent needs mean that water resources management is neglected, despite being absolutely essential for the future of Yemen’s population.

Sana’a groundwater resources are significantly depleted in many areas and acknowledged globally as one of the world’s scarcest water supplies. Sana’a may be the first capital city in the world to run out of water. Looking forwards, how can the country produce more food, raise farmer incomes and meet increase water demands if there is less water available?

Clearly, there are several interrelated aspects contributing to the current water crisis in Sana’a specifically and Yemen in general, and the population has to innovate to find solutions. Future supply options include pumping desalinated water from the Red Sea over a distance of 250 km, over 2,700 meter-high mountains into the capital, itself located at an altitude of 2,200 meters. However, the feasibly of this is questionable with the enormous pumping cost would push the price of water up to $10 per cubic meter. Other options to supply Sana’a from adjacent regions are fraught due to water rights.

Groundwater data is the critical foundation for water managers to both prevent problems and formulate solutions. Data is lacking in many of Yemen’s groundwater basins. Even heavily used basins have no record of how much groundwater was withdrawn and remains in the aquifers, where it was pumped from? Nor are adequate data available on groundwater quality or aquifer characteristics. Furthermore, while the drought and other cutbacks on surface water supplies are motivating groundwater users to drill new or deeper wells in increasing numbers despite the fact that well owners don’t know how their aquifer is doing and so can’t anticipate changes. There is lack of data on private wells.

Lack of groundwater data in Yemen is not the result of ignorance about its importance, but is rather the victim of chronic underfunding and politics, which have been exacerbated by the on-going conflict. The war has made it almost impossible to measure and manage groundwater development and secure its long-term sustainability.

Having just completed the online course on “Professional drilling management” led by Skat Foundation, UNICEF, and the United Nations Development Programme Cap-Net, I have learned about the need to develop our knowledge in this regard. The course highlighted important immediate and long-term actions for Yemen:

  • Raise awareness within Yemen of the groundwater issues faced by the country.
  • Find practical ways to better understand groundwater, regulate its extraction, introduce control mechanisms and engage with the local population to develop effective actions.
  • Build capacity of government, NGOs, consultants, policy makers and beneficiaries through training in groundwater management.
  • Invest in building rain-water harvesting facilities in rural areas so the people don’t have to walk miles to collect water.
  • Invest in re-building infrastructure alongside improving water resources management.

Muna Omar is an Ethiopian refugee and a young water professional, living and working in Sana’a, undertaking monitoring and evaluation of humanitarian programmes in the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), health and nutrition sectors such as a cholera-response project, and an executive assistant with a local NGO.

This article was first published in GeoDrilling International and is reproduced with permission and thanks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s