Is Yemen Chewing Itself Dry?

Digging at the Root of Yemen's Water Crisis

By: Lucy Kafanov | Dec. 03, 2012

SANAA, YEMEN — Crippling poverty, widespread government corruption and a growing Al Qaeda insurgency -- Yemen is a country that seems to have no shortage of problems. But add this one to the list: a shortage of water could soon make Sanaa the first world capital to run dry.

"It's a catastrophe," says Dr. Ismail al-Janad, the former Chairman of Yemen's Geological Survey and Mineral Resources Authority. "We have limited water resources and bad management of those resources. If we continue like this, within ten years the water will run out in Sanaa as well as other areas."

The problem is deceptively simple: too many people, and not enough water to go around. The number of Yemenis has quadrupled in the last half century, and is expected to triple again in the next 40 years, to about 60 million. Across the country -- and especially in the capital of Sanaa -- water is used up faster than can be replenished by annual rainfall. Those who can afford it get their water delivered by trucks. The rest have to make do however they can. There are public taps, but water pollution and shortages are a problem. 

A Qat seller in Sanaa. Photo by: Lucy Kafanov

And with a reliable supply of clean water priced out of reach for many residents, political analyst Abdul-Ghani Al-Iryani says that for some segments of the population, the water is as good as gone. "We shouldn't be talking about Sanaa running out of water in ten years, it has actually run out of water," he said. "It's a matter of definitions now -- and that's not just Sanaa, it's the entire country."

At an altitude of 7,500 feet, Sanaa is one of the highest capital cities in the world. Some of its wells are more than 4,000 feet deep but many are no longer usable because of the sinking water table.

While population growth and poor management are to blame - there's another culprit: Qat. The leaves contain a mild narcotic and chewing them is a key part of Yemeni culture. Almost everyone does - more than 90 percent of men, according to the World Health Organization. 

Like clockwork each afternoon, the narrow lanes of Sanaa's numerous Qat souks fill up with men buying their evening supply. There are endless varieties of the plant, and no shortage of customers. The tradition goes something like this: a huge meal, followed by a gathering at one of Sanaa's countless divans. Men will sit together for hours, chewing, smoking and debating politics. Women will often chew as well, although separately from the men. 

Most Yemenis will bristle at the notion of Qat as an addictive drug. Chewing the leaf induces mild euphoria and a state of excitement - not terribly different from drinking several cups of strong espresso. Criticism of Qat-use tends to focus on the resulting drain on household budget, disincentive to the local production of food crops and as an obstacle in economic development. Yet this post isn't about the pros or cons of chewing Qat, but rather one indisputable reality: it takes a lot of water to cultivate the plant. More than half -- perhaps even as much as a third of Yemen's scarce water is used to grow the crop. 

A Yemeni Qat seller shows off his wares at a souk in Sanaa. Photograph by Lucy Kafanov

For the farmers, growing Qat often means guaranteed high profits. But for the country, it means a slow and inevitable death, says journalist Maged al-Ariki, who's written a book about Yemen's looming water crisis.

"Without doubt, Yemen is chewing itself to death," Al-Ariki tells me. "Agriculture is using about 93 percent of the extracted water, and most of that goes to Qat. The government is doing little to address the misuse of water and as a result areas will inevitably go dry."

To better understand how farming Qat is affecting the water supply, my cameraman and I drive out to a farming village in Hamdan, on the outskirts of Sanaa. Our "guide" is a local journalist whose uncle owns a farm in the village. As the four-wheel-drive truck rattles it's way up the unpaved mountain roads, the occasional stone houses eventually give way to a vast expanse. We find ourselves staring at what seems to be an utterly inhospitable terrain, but in the midst of it, a sea of green: lush Qat trees stretching across the horizon. 

We climbed out of the truck as two men slowly made their way across the rugged terrain to meet us. They are the farmers who own this land. In the distance, a group of young men sat perched on a rooftop, eyeing us warily. One of the farmers waves to them and shouts something in Arabic. The men on the roof seem to relax somewhat. In a small village like this, the presence of foreigners doesn't go unnoticed. And although I felt relatively safe as a guest, the camera is often an unpredictable element. 

Amid the rugged landscape in Hamdan, a sea of green Qat trees. Photograph by Lucy Kafanov.

We walk with the farmers into one of the groves. The Qat trees rise a few feet above my head, and dozens of them are planted next to one another in neat long rows. The ground crumbles beneath each step, yellow and cracked. The soil looks parched, save for a few occasional stagnant puddles. The problem with Qat cultivation is supposed to be the massive amount of water it requires, but here amid the arid soil, it certainly doesn't look like this is what's draining Yemen's supply. "Where's the water?" I ask one of the farmer. He smiles and tells me to wait until after lunch. The fields are watered early in the morning and again late in the afternoon. More water means faster growth, they tell me, and that means more cash for the farmers.

"We used to grow grapes, peaches, pomegranates and other fruits, but it simply wasn’t as profitable as Qat," says Muhammad Yahia Sa’ad, who's been farming all his life. "We ended up rooting out the other crops."

Ice-cold water served out a tin can to go along with lunch. Photograph by Lucy Kafanov.

Muhammad invites us to his home to eat. We sit on the ground, sharing flat, freshly-baked bread, and a stew called fatha. Served in a pot blackened by fire, fatha is a thick, meat-studded soup that's brought out piping-hot, covered in green foam. It doesn't look like the most appetizing dish, but is absolutely delicious once you taste it. One of the farmers pours ice-cold fresh water from a clay jar and into a tin cup, which all of us share. After the meal, it's time for the water.

We set out to for one of the wells in order to watch the irrigation process in action. As we drove along the bumpy roads I noticed long, thin pipes zigzagging across the fields. Each connects to a well and allows farmers to irrigate their fields. There were once 30 wells serving the village, but Muhammad tells me ten have already gone dry, and two more were on the verge. I ask him what he'll do once there's no more water.

"Allah will take care of us," he says with a shrug.

For some inexplicable reason, when I heard the word "well" I had come to expect something along the lines of a hole in the ground and a bucket on a rope. Instead, we pulled up to a small brick building. Inside was the mechanism that was responsible for bringing the water to the surface: a giant pump attached to pipes that bore deep into the ground. It was kept under lock and key when not in use, and we had to wait around for a bit for the well-keeper to arrive. Soon enough, a white Toyota SUV came rumbling towards us. With a cigarette dangling out from his lips and right cheek full of Qat, the driver hopped out. Grabbing a canister of diesel fuel out of the truck, he headed inside towards the machine. The cigarette thankfully remained securely in place as several gallons of fuel were poured in. With the turn of a key, the machine roared to life. Somewhere, roughly 400 meters below where we stood, water was rushing up to the surface.

A Qat farmer in Hamdan watches as the water starts flowing. Photograph by Lucy Kafanov.

We step back out into the blinding sun and make our way to a cross-section of pipes. Using a giant red wrench, Muhammad unscrews something on the side and we watch as a trickle of water turns into a gush. The water made its way down a shallow ditch that's been dug out specifically for this purpose. Grabbing the camera, we head after it. After several minutes of walking, the ditch opened up into a massive Qat field. The yellow cracked dirt that so puzzled me earlier was quickly swallowed by the flood. Muhammad was following the flow several feet ahead of us, occasionally using a shovel to help guide the water towards one side or another. Eventually, I kick off my shoes and wade into the field to film a piece to camera. The water came up just past my knees.

Subsidized diesel powers the well's water pumps. Photograph by Lucy Kafanov.

By law, only the government is allowed to dig and maintain wells. But in reality, it's a free for all. That makes it almost impossible to control how much is pumped out. Based on conservative estimates, about 250 million cubic meters of water are extracted from the Sanaa basin every year, 80 percent of which will never be replenished. What's more, massive government fuel subsidies make producing water using the diesel pumps relatively cheap. Easier to drill for more rather than learn how to make do with less.

It wasn't always like this. For centuries, Yemeni farmers captured rainwater for their crops. In some areas, they built dams. But international organizations got involved in the 1960s and 1970s, encouraging Yemen to drill and use underground aquifers instead. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund incentives may have been well intentioned, but ultimately the projects helped drain water tables quicker than anyone expected.

After our shoot, my cameraman and I head back to the truck. The goal is to get back to Sanaa before sunset in order to avoid problems at the checkpoints. As we pack up our gear, Muhammad comes over with two clear plastic bags full of freshly-harvested Qat leaves. A parting gift, he says. We begin our slow and bumpy drive back to Sanaa, while Mohammad and the rest of the men go indoors to start their daily chew. In Yemen, the evenings belong to Qat, and solving the water crisis will simply have to wait another day.

Further Reading:

How Yemen Chewed Itself Dry | Foreign Affairs
Yemen's Water Woes | The Middle East Channel