Why such a pessimistic headline? Why not speak about hope in order to encourage people in near despair? It is because the situation is dire, and an author has a duty to describe the situation as he or she sees it. Even more so as urgent action is required, if a disaster of monumental proportions is to be avoided.
Multiple disasters are looming for Yemen.
One that is rapidly approaching is that of water shortage. Already, the per capita water availability in Yemen is the lowest in the world. A 2005 study by Al Asbahi estimated the total annual water requirements of Yemen to be 3.4 billion cubic metres. At the same time renewable sources, such as rain, can provide up to 2.5 billion cubic metres. There is, therefore, a deficit of 0.9 billion cubic metres, which has to come from the aquifers deep underground, which are progressively depleting, and may run dry by the time US President Barack Obama finishes his term, and starts writing his autobiography! We know this because wells have to be dug deeper and deeper, many as deep as half a kilometre.
The mismanagement of water resources is shocking. Due to a lack of maintenance, loss from leaking pipes can be as much as 60 per cent. Contamination of water, by sewage seeping into the ground, is difficult to measure but significant. Wasteful flood irrigation is the norm in Yemen, whereas drip irrigation would be 50 per cent more efficient.
As expected, agriculture uses 90 per cent of the available water, but half of that is squandered on growing qat, the infamous mild stimulant of Yemen and the countries of the Horn of Africa, which have a per capita GDP of under $1,000 (Dh3,673), the lowest in the world.
Yemeni farmers grow qat because it sells and has profits that are at least five times higher than other crops. In July 2013, Foreign Affairs website published an article titled ‘How Yemen Chewed Itself Dry’.
Yemen has the occasional floods caused by heavy rains, as happened in 2010. But it does not have the dams or expertise to save such huge quantities of water — for a non-rainy day!
Unlike some countries in the Gulf region, Yemen can neither afford the cost of desalination nor of pumping water uphill from the Red Sea level to the mountains of the capital. Sana’a’s current population of two million is projected to reach four million in a decade.
The consequences are predictably serious. First, food production will suffer, and food prices will skyrocket. When farmlands run out of water, the animals also die of hunger and tourists stop coming. When poverty reaches a critical level, neighbours begin to fight over water resources. In a country that has 25 million people and 50 million guns, civil war is just waiting to erupt. Even today, an estimated 4,000 people are killed every year in disputes over land — many more than the victims of terrorism or drones.
It is not only water that is steadily depleting — oil is too. Foreign aid is very unpredictable, and comes with strings attached, such as a carte blanche to assassinate Yemenis with Obama’s drones.
The prospects are even worse when we factor in the fertility rate in Yemen, one of the highest in the world. Last week, I attended a one-day conference on Yemen at the London School of Oriental and African Studies, where I learnt that there would be a huge increase in the teen population over the next 15 years.
Ordinarily, that would be an encouraging development. Not in this case, as these youngsters will be unemployed but will be well-versed in social media, and therefore well connected and presumably well informed — the requirements for riots and revolution.
So, if these dire predictions above are correct, what should Yemenis do?
I would respectfully suggest to my kith and kin that they first and foremost realise that the solution needs to come from them. The international community will only take feeble, temporary and strings-attached actions.
Second, Yemenis must find a way to ban qat. There! I said it! There will be many who might say that I have lost my mind. It won’t be easy. It will require an intensive and extensive educational pan-Yemen campaign, like the one mounted against smoking, and it will need to be a gradual one — over five years.
Yemenis should be watching numerous daily TV ads about how to help themselves, instead of wasting time watching the contrived comings and goings of the president.
Fortunately, qat is not an addictive drug, because it does not cause classic withdrawal symptoms. Many Yemenis who moved to GCC countries abandoned qat and are now very prosperous. Water, thus saved, could be used for human consumption, as well as for tourism and for the growing of vegetables and fruits. Farm animals should then thrive.
If Yemenis are not willing to do that, then let them stop complaining about thirst, diarrheal and liver diseases and ulcers, poverty, the absence of a modern state, and corruption. Let them also stop seeking handouts. It is ironic that the Kingdom of Sheba established its prosperity with the construction of the Mareb dam — 3,000 years ago.
Dr Qais Ghanem is a retired neurologist, radio show host, poet and author. His novels are ‘Final Flight From Sana’a’ and ‘Two Boys from Aden College’. His latest co-authored non-fiction work is ‘My Arab Spring My Canada’ (Amazon.com) and his combined English/Arabic poetry book is ‘From Left to Right’. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@QaisGhanem