Global Policy Forum

Yemen: Capital City Faces 2017 Water Crunch

March 23, 2010

Yemen's capital, Sanaa, may run out of economically viable water supplies by 2017 as available groundwater is unable to keep pace with the needs of a fast-growing population, experts warn.

"The water we are drilling around the capital is now down to the water which fell on earth 8,000 years ago," said Saleh al-Dubby, director of the World Bank-funded Sanaa Basin Water Management Project.

Sanaa Basin groundwater levels have fallen sharply in recent decades, especially since the 1960s which saw the start of borehole drilling, a practice which was greatly expanded in the 1970s.

Groundwater levels in the Sanaa Basin dropped from less than 30 metres below the surface in the early 1970s to more than 150 metres below the surface in 1995, according to al-Dubby. Experts estimate that groundwater levels are decreasing by up to 4-6 metres a year.

Sanaa has 120 legal wells of which 80 are productive; 30 are deep wells. With an annual output from the Sanaa Basin of around 200 million cubic metres of water and an input of only 50 million cubic metres, a crisis is looming.

To hit water, drills must bore 100-400 metres into the volcanic aquifer, and in places 300-500 metres into the sandstone aquifer, according to the Water Basin Project.

In a few instances, oil rig drills have bored down to 1,000 metres to find water. Overall, the average drilling depth in Sanaa is estimated at 200-300 metres.

"All this has happened in only 30 years," said al-Dubby.

This exploitation of "fossil water" is causing great concern among experts. "This is a disaster. We are tapping into the last natural strategic resources," said Ashraf al-Eryani of the German Technical Cooperation (GTZ). He said Yemen was the first place on earth to be doing this.

Above ground, the water emergency is keenly felt. The cost of water in some Sanaa suburbs has tripled in the past year, and armed conflicts over water resources around the city are increasing, say experts.

Thousands of families are left without water due to shortages in the summer months, forcing them to spend about a third of their meagre incomes on buying water from trucks.

To make matters worse, Sanaa has the fastest-growing population of any capital city in the world, at 7 percent a year. While only 60,000 people lived in Sanaa in 1940, the population has risen to over two million today, according to GTZ.

"The population of Sanaa will double in the next 8-10 years regardless of any other effects," said Ramon Scoble of GTZ. Experts predict Yemen's total population of about 23 million will double within the next two decades.

According to Mahmoud Shidiwah, chair of the Yemeni government's Water and Environment Protection Agency, annual per capita water availability is only 200 cubic metres, well below the international water scarcity threshold of 1,700 cubic metres.

Around 80 percent of water goes to agriculture, experts say, much of it for the cultivation of 'qat', a mildly narcotic plant widely chewed by Yemenis. The country's biggest cash crop is also regarded as one of its biggest culprits when it comes to wasteful irrigation techniques and uncontrolled water drilling.

There has been talk of moving the capital, as well as desalinating seawater on the coast and pumping it 2,000 metres uphill to Sanaa. But there are no concrete plans.

In 1997 the government introduced long-term reforms to decentralize water management. There have also been efforts to replace inefficient irrigation systems with modern agricultural techniques, and water rationing has been introduced in the major cities.

However, many experts say that legal oversight remains limited and that there are no plans in place in the event of a real water emergency.

"There are no worst-case scenario plans if the water runs out in Sanaa," said GTZ's al-Eryani. "It seems as if people hope that donors can solve the problem, but it is not like electricity or oil. When you run out, that's it - and no one can solve that problem."

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