SANAA, March 28 (Reuters) - With a belch of acrid, greasy smoke and a jolt
that shakes its moorings, the pump on Yemeni water farmer Jad al-Adhrani's
plot of land roars to life, and the race to squeeze the last drop of water
out of Yemen's parched earth resumes.
Gesturing across his dusty patch of ground in Hamal, on the outskirts of the
capital Sanaa, he counts himself lucky to still be drawing water after
having dug down only 500 metres, but knows that it cannot last.
"When it runs out," he says, "I'll dig again."
The water he sells for drinking and washing to residents of the affluent
neighbouring Sanaa district of Hadda comes from an aquifer that thousands of
wells studding the city and surrounding hills have sucked nearly dry.
They raise the prospect that the city, with its medieval centre of slender
brick towers rising above narrow, angular lanes, may conclude two millennia
of urban history by becoming the first capital in the world to use up all
Such a fate, say the officials tasked with controlling water use, is due to
a tangled politics of patronage that President Ali Abdullah Saleh perfected
in 33 years of pitting his foes and enemies against one another.
Though Saleh has bowed to U.S. and Saudi pressure and surrendered his office
after a year of protests that split the military and threatened to spiral
into civil war, the power structures he nurtured live on, and show no signs
of being dismantled.
"The state - let's put that in quotation marks, since there really isn't one
- allowed and helped and took part in the uncontrolled digging of wells,"
says Abdelsalam Razzaz, minister of water in Yemen's transitional
government, which will govern the country until elections are held in 2014.
"The water crisis is more about institutions than water and it basically
amounts to the absence of the state. So long as that's missing, the water is
a site for pillage."
POWER BROKERS, WATER MAGNATES
The water emergency pits what people drink against what they grow, and more
specifically what they chew. The production of qat, the waxy green leaf that
all classes of Yemenis munch for its mild stimulant effect, is dominated by
Yemen's tribal leaders, military officers and politicians.
The verdant squares dotting Artil outside Sanaa, whose landlords and local
notables include members of the same tribal faction as Saleh's family,
illustrate the explosive growth of unregulated cash-crop farming that
experts say is parching Yemen.
A driver carrying water through the village, which is dominated by a base
housing units of the Republican Guard, the e l ite military unit with a
counter-terrorism brief led by one of Saleh's sons Ahmed Ali, pointed to
plots of potatoes, feed barley and, of course, qat.
"Our income is meaningless. This container is a few thousand rial, a few
times a day," he said. "What they grow? That's all the coins everybody has
in the country, all the time."
Salem Bashuaib, head of the National Water Resources Authority, which is
intended to oversee the allocation of water nationwide, places qat at the
top of the list of crops whose cultivation has grown tenfold since the
1970s, with up to half of that farming relying on wells tapping aquifers.
"We have an annual decline of three to six metres in the Sanaa basin, and
about 40 percent of the water here is used for qat," he says.
"Ninety percent of what's taken from the ground is for agricultural
purposes. This city would be feasible if its water was used only for
drinking. With agriculture as it is now, it is impossible."
Prices for an approximately 2,500-litre container of water that would supply
a Sanaa household of four for a maximum of five days leapt to 10,000 rial
(about $47) at the peak of fighting last year between pro- and anti-Saleh
military units, from about 1,200 rial before protests escalated. They have
since eased to below 5,000 rial.
SOLUTION: AGRICULTURAL EXODUS
Yemen's impending water catastrophe has drawn Germany's development body and
the World Bank, among others, to give funds and technical assistance to
projects aimed at staving it off.
The latter estimates Yemen's fresh water availability at 135 cubic metres
per person each year; the World Health Organization draws a line defining
extreme water poverty at 1000 cubic metres.
Neighbouring oil giant Saudi Arabia, fearing a political and environmental
crisis may lead to the collapse of the state and an influx of refugees, has
donated fuel to Yemen and offered to fund water projects.
The proposals range from the technically daunting - desalinating seawater to
supply the city of Taiz, whose water crisis exceeds Sanaa's - to the
The latter include a proposal to transfer the bulk of Yemen's qat
cultivation across the Red Sea to Ethiopia, while preserving the
distribution rights and consequent economic clout of producers.
Bashuiab, whose office relies on international donors for over 90 percent of
its budget, believes that the plan would have would have alleviated Sanaa's
water crunch, but ran up against the interests of what amounts to Yemen's
qat lobby who were wary of any disruption to the trade.
He put the blame for the situation squarely on the government, pointing to
the fact that the interior ministry has seldom enforced a 2002 law
stipulating wells can only be dug with government approval.
"The decisions regarding these questions do not rest with ordinary people,"
he said. " What can you do? If there is no political will, then you cannot
enforce the law."
Razzaz, his colleague in the cabinet - now working from a home that a
prominent Saleh aide offered as office space following the destruction of
water ministry offices in last year's fighting - echoed the sentiment.
Razzaz fears Yemen's institutions - already weak in a country where tribal
and regional affiliations have counted for more than central authority - may
be too dysfunctional to deal with the looming catastrophe.
"The officials themselves have traditionally been the most aggressive well
diggers. Nearly every minister had a well dug in his house, and the same is
true of the mashayikh (tribal leaders) and any official with the money to
dig a well," he said.
"I'd very much like to restore the credibility of Yemen's institutions say
to the donors 'Thank you, we'll hold ourselves accountable and keep
ourselves honest'," he said.
"But as long as the institutions are incapable, my message to the donors is
that they are better off running the projects themselves." (Editing by Sonya
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Received on Wed Mar 28 2012 - 17:27:21 EDT