Yemen is currently facing the region’s most severe water crisis. More than half of the population does not have access to clean water and the country is withdrawing their renewable water supplies at a rate of 169 percent, meaning that the population is using more water than can be replenished. Analysts predict that Sana’a—Yemen’s capital and largest city center—could run out of water as early as the end of this year.
The severity of the water shortage and its potential consequences, amidst the country’s raging civil war, has catapulted the nation from a regional to an international security concern due to the resource’s influence on the conflict and as a tool to leverage by belligerent parties and extremist groups. As local actors such as the Hadi-led government, Houthis, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) try to use water scarcity to their advantage, it increases humanitarian suffering and reduces chances of finding a long-term solution to the conflict.
The water shortage in Yemen is not new. Analysts identified and warned of the problem long before the onset of the civil war in 2015, which has pitted Houthi rebels—aligned with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh—against the current Saudi-backed Yemeni government headed by Abdrabbu Mansur Hadi (among a myriad of other groups with political aims). Unsustainable irrigation methods and the over-cultivation of qat—a popular and lucrative, but water-intensive crop—depleted the country’s already meager water supply. Combined with poor governmental regulation, such practices have transformed Yemen’s water shortage from bad to worse.
As the crisis plays out, the water shortage will have more than humanitarian consequences. In the past several years, conflict over water has ignited local tensions among previously peaceful groups. Al-Thawra, a pro-government periodical in Yemen, reported in 2015 that seventy to eighty percent of all rural conflicts are rooted in water troubles and the Yemeni Ministry of the Interior estimated that around four thousand Yemenis die each year in violent disputes over the resource.
Further exacerbating these tensions is the impending mass population displacement from rural to urban centers. As water sources dry up, rural communities in Yemen reliant on agriculture will migrate to cities looking for sustainable income. A World Bank report states that rate of urbanization in Yemen, which hovers around six to eight percent, is almost three times that of other MENA countries. Increased competition over scarce opportunities in cities will likely inflame existing urban-rural animosities, such as how it sparked violence in areas such as Ta’izz and Abyan when urban centers forcibly rerouted water supplies from rural drilling sites. The lawlessness and proliferation of small arms in the civil war will heighten the intensity and scope of these clashes.
As the lack of available water forces rural communities to abandon agriculture in favor of viable incomes, militant groups are getting a recruitment boost. Reports out of Yemen state that Houthi rebels are recruiting child soldiers in water-poor areas by offering salaries and benefits. AQAP is also benefitting from the chaos caused by the civil war to consolidate in the south, and is luring new recruits by offering salaries higher than those of government soldiers. With fifty-eight percent of the population employed in agriculture, and therefore dependent on a consistent water supply, such an influx of rebel recruits could critically hamper American allies’ progress in the war.
Water has become another weapon in militants’ arsenals. The Houthis and AQAP have begun to employ a ‘carrot and stick’ strategy with the increasingly rare resource to subdue unruly populations and sway the direction of the conflict in their favor. To gain sympathy in southern provinces where the government has historically allowed crucial infrastructure to erode, AQAP has stepped into the void and developed reliable water distribution systems for local populations. Correspondence between AQAP and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb obtained by the Associated Press details how the distribution of water is a strategic part of their campaign to win hearts and minds and advises that “providing these necessities will have a great effect on people, and will make them sympathize with us and feel that their fate is tied to ours.”
Conversely, Houthi rebels have skipped the carrot and moved directly to the stick. The Houthis have controlled varying sections of the city of Taiz for over a year and continuously blocked shipments of water and other resources intended for the starved population. One report noted that when citizens complained to Houthi leaders, they were told to “ask the ‘resistance’ to feed you.” Decreased supplies of water will only encourage Houthi forces to use water they control as leverage, potentially forcing the United Nations—and consequentially the United States—to become more involved in the conflict.
Yemen’s recent outbreak of cholera, which has infected more than two hundred thousand Yemenis, will further improve the Houthis’ leverage. Instructions recently released by the World Health Organization to relieve symptoms and decrease mortality rates requires at least a liter of clean water, a tall order for a country in a water shortage. As the epidemic spreads, groups controlling water supplies, such as the Houthis, will have increased leverage over local and international actors.
The Hadi-led government is far from an innocent actor in the ongoing crisis. Although Hadi’s forces retook the southern city of Aden from the Houthi rebels in 2015, the population still suffers from severe electricity and water shortages. Local leaders who could assist in building the necessary infrastructure in the south are relieved of their positions by President Hadi as the central government grows increasingly wary of a stronger southern secessionist movement. Meanwhile, the government’s coalition allies, namely Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, allegedly strike civilian targets across the country, damaging necessary infrastructure such as water bottling plants.
The ongoing civil war has transformed Yemen’s water shortage from a local humanitarian concern to an international security flashpoint. Inflamed local tensions, increased militant recruitment, and strengthened Houthi control on water could all tip the scales in favor of the rebels against the Saudi-backed government. This could also open the door for increased Iranian influence since Iran supports the Houthis.
While Yemen remains embroiled in conflict, comprehensive water infrastructure development will have to wait. There are, however, mitigating measures the United States and the international community can take now to prevent further shortages.
One such measure would be the immediate halt of any US support for the Yemeni government’s impending seizure of the port of Hudayda—the nexus for nearly eighty percent of international aid, including water, to Yemen—from Houthi forces. In a memo released in March of this year from Secretary of Defense James Mattis to national security advisor H.R. McMaster, Mattis encouraged “limited support” from the United States for the offensive. Although some argue that the eventual capture of the port by US-backed forces could allow reconstruction for increased aid in the future, US forces are not convinced such an offensive would be successful and is a risky gamble when it could cut off water supplies.
If the United States is to achieve the sustainable peace needed for true water infrastructure improvement, they must focus their efforts less on directing weapons sales and more on reforming the negotiating framework, which, in its current state, is practically dead on arrival. Current negotiations are based on the post-Arab Spring National Dialogue Conference (NDC), which was forcibly pushed through after being rejected by Yemen’s Southern Secessionist Movement (Hirak) and the Houthis. Many Yemenis view the NDC as an elite-centered agreement not rooted in the concerns of the populace. Furthermore, the US-supported and Saudi-backed coalition insist on a resulting government in Yemen led by President Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi, who is friendly to their interests. Hadi, however, although from southern origin, has lost southern support for his collaboration with the northern status quo and general support as he watches the war-time destruction from a palace in Riyadh. If the international community does not reform the negotiating framework, there will be no chance for the peace necessary to begin truly resolving the water crisis.
Immediate relief from the current water shortage and a realistic negotiating framework for peace will be a large step forward in mitigating consequences from the water crisis. As is, the current conflict over water will continue to destabilize the country and hinder American efforts to counter AQAP, Iran, and the Houthi rebels. If the US and Saudi backed coalition truly wants to turn the tide of war in their favor, its key concern should be water, not warheads.
Rachel Furlow is an intern at the Atlantic Council with the Middle East Peace and Security Intiative in the Brent Scrowcroft Center on International Security.