TAIZ, Yemen — I am in the Yemen International Hospital in Taiz, the Yemeni city in the central highlands that is suffering from such an acute water shortage that people get to run their taps for only 36 hours every 30 days or so. They have to fill up as much as they can and then rely on water trucks that come through neighborhoods and sell water like a precious commodity. I am visiting Mohamed Qaid, a 25-year-old laborer from the nearby village of Qaradh who was struck the night before in the hand and chest by three bullets fired by a sniper from Marzouh, the village next door. The two villages have been fighting over the rapidly dwindling water supply from their shared mountain springs. Six people have been killed and many more wounded in clashes since 2000 that have heated up of late. One was killed a night ago. Qaid is in pain, but he wanted to tell people about what is happening here.
I have one question: “Were you really shot in a fight over water?”
He winces out his answer: “It wasn’t about politics. It wasn’t about the Muslim Brotherhood. It was about water.”
There is a message in this bottle. Yemen, a country of breathtaking beauty, with wonderful people, is a human development disaster. You see here what a half-century of political mismanagement, coupled with natural resource mismanagement, oil distortions and a population explosion, has led to. But Yemen is just a decade or so ahead of Syria and Egypt in terms of the kind of human development crisis this whole region will face.
The great U.S. environmentalist Dana Meadows, when asked if it was too late to do anything about climate change, used to say, “We have exactly enough time — starting now.” The Arab world has exactly enough time — starting now. If people do not stop fighting each other over dead ideologies and sectarian differences and focus instead on overcoming their deficits of knowledge, freedom and women’s empowerment — as the U.N. Arab Human Development Report urged — there is no hope. As Qaid suggested, in Yemen those old ideologies are luxuries now. It is just about water.
I came to Taiz to write my column and film a Showtime documentary on climate and the Arab awakening. We flew down on a Yemeni air force helicopter with Abdul Rahman al-Eryani, Yemen’s former minister of water and environment, who minces no words.
“In Sanaa, the capital, in the 1980s, you had to drill about 60 meters to find water. Today, you have to drill 850 to 1,000 meters to find water. Yemen has 15 aquifers, and only two today are self-sustaining; all the others are being steadily depleted. And wherever in Yemen you see aquifers depleting, you have the worst conflicts.”
One of the most threatened aquifers in Yemen is the Radaa Basin, he added, “and it is the one of the strongholds of al-Qaida.”
In the north, on the border with Saudi Arabia, the Sadah region used to be one of the richest areas for growing grapes, pomegranates and oranges.
“But they depleted their aquifer so badly that many farms went dry,” said Eryani, and this created the environment for the pro-Iranian Houthi sect to recruit young, unemployed farm laborers to start a separatist movement.
This environmental disaster was born in the 1970s when the oil/construction boom exploded in the Persian Gulf, and some 2 million to 3 million unskilled Yemeni men left their villages to build Saudi Arabia.
“As a result,” said Eryani, “the countryside was depopulated of manpower.”
Women resorted to cutting trees for fuel, and the terraces eroded because of lack of maintenance. That led to widespread erosion of hillsides and the massive silting of the wadis — seasonal riverbeds — whose rich soil used to support three crops a year, including Yemen’s famed coffee. The silting up of the wadis crushed the coffee business and led Yemenis to grow other cash crops that needed less fertile soil. The best was qat, the narcotic leaf to which this country is addicted. But qat requires a lot of water, and that led to overdrafting of groundwater.
I interviewed the leaders of the two warring villages: Abdul Moimen of Qaradh, 42, and Ahmed Qaid of Marzouh, 40. They had two things in common: Both had 10 children, and when I asked both what would happen to the water supply when their 10 children each had 10 children, they each first said some version of “Allah will provide for us,” and then they each said “desalination.” But that costs much more money than Yemen can afford now.
“Yemen suffered from two drugs: qat and easy oil money,” says Eryani.
Qat drank all the water, and the easy oil money seduced the rural manpower into leaving for unskilled jobs. But now that most of the Yemeni workers have been sent home from Saudi Arabia, they are finding a country running out of water, with few jobs, and a broken public school system that teaches more religion than science. As a result, what Yemen needs most — an educated class not tied to an increasingly water-deprived agriculture — it cannot get, not without much better leadership and a new political consensus.
There is a ray of hope, though. Yemenis are engaged in a unique and peaceful national dialogue — very different from Syria and Egypt and with about a third of the input coming from women — to produce a new leadership. They might be starting at the bottom. But, of all the Arab awakening states, they do have the best chance to start over — now — if they seize it.
Thomas Friedman is a columnist for the New York Times.
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