Sanaa, Yemen to Become World's First Capital City to Run Out of Water

A Yemeni water trader profiled in a recent Reuters investigation explains that even though his well is 1,300 ft deep, he's hardly extracting any water at all. The same goes for wells that are 2,000 and even 3,000 ft deep--in Yemen's mountainous capital city Sanaa, more water is being consumed than produced. Families have reported going without getting access to water for weeks. Sanaa is home to 2 million people, and is growing fast--but experts say that if trends continue, it could be a ghost town in 20 years. To make matters worse, Reuters reports that much of the shortage can be blamed on a "national drug habit".

In almost every one of Yemen's 21 aquifers, more water is drawn out than is replaced--and the demand is especially high for cities like Sanaa that are located in the nation's highlands. Andrew Sahooly, a German water expert interviewed by Reuters, says that "If we continue like this, Sanaa will be a ghost city in 20 years." Sahooly and other experts predict that millions of "water refugees" may eventually have to abandon Sanaa and the highland cities for the coast, and many will be forced into neighboring gulf states or into Europe. In other words, Yemen is facing a full blown water crisis.


Yemeni man at a well in Sanaa. Photo via Humanitarian Futures

Water Shortage from a Drug Problem?

Curiously, the root of the problem seems to stem from a sort of nationwide drug habit. It appears that a mild narcotic from the leaf of the qat plant is immensely popular in Yemen--the men there chew it throughout much of the day, even while at work. It is entirely legal, socially acceptable, and seems to have only minor narcotic effects. But it is one of the chief drains on the national water supply.

Some 90% of the water used in Yemen is used for agriculture. And an impressive 37% of all of that water is used to cultivate the qat. Government subsidies encourage qat cultivation, and the qat industry employs many Yemeni. As one qat merchant told Reuters, "It's true that qat uses much of our water but Yemen cannot live without qat." Another said, "We depend on qat. Without it, Yemen is impossible. God will help us find new water."


A Yemeni qat seller

Instability from an Incoming Water Crisis

Many Western governments fear that the instability that would arise from an exacerbated water crisis would not only be devastating to the population in Yemen, but make it a ripe target for terrorist recruitment by the likes of Al Qaeda.

There are 23 million people in Yemen, and that population is expected to double over the next 20 years. If no sustainable way to manage the water supply can be found, the area is indeed likely become unstable--violent conflict over water shortages has already broken out in some of the northern provinces. Let's hope Yemen can find a better way to support both its agriculture and an increasingly thirsty population--some have called to end subsidies for qat. Otherwise, Yemen may be thrown into crisis in coming decades.

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