Future Impact of Climate Change Visible Now in Yemen

November 24, 2014


Locals filling their bottles with public waters. Sanaía, Yemen 

Foad Al Harazi / World Bank

  • Water shortages in Yemen provide a glimpse of what the future may look like for the entire Middle East and North Africa region.
  • A new World Bank report reveals that if current trends continue as a whole the region will get hotter and drier.
  • Shorter growing seasons could threaten food security and competition for dwindling natural resources could fuel conflict.

Deep underground, Yemen’s old, natural sources of clean, fresh water are drying up. Its reservoirs are depleted faster than they are replenished; its groundwater levels plummet by six meters a year in crowded, mountainous regions outside the cities of Sana’a, Taiz, Dhamar, Amran and Sa’ada. Yemenis say ten future generations’ worth of Yemen’s water is being used up now.


The burden of fetching water becomes a  woman’s responsibility

" In our area, which is not served by piped water, we spend up to five hours a day fetching water. Our crops dry up, while we desperately wait for rain. "

Hajjah Zuhra

The Haraz tribe, west of Sana’a

Yemen today is a glimpse of what’s in store for other parts of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) as climate change and rapid population growth combine to put more and more pressure on the resources essential to human life, like water. Already, Yemenis have as little as 86 cubic meters of renewable water sources left per person per year—not the lowest figure in the region, but as one of the region’s poorest countries,  Yemen is among the least able to adapt.

In Sana’a and Taiz, people have piped water once a week at most. Otherwise, they have to buy it, and for the ordinary worker, it’s pricey. For others, fetching water is a daily challenge. “In our area, which is not served by piped water, we spend up to five hours a day fetching water, “said Hajjah Zuhra from the Haraz tribe, west of Sana’a. “Our crops dry up, while we desperately wait for rain.” Some towns in the Yemeni highlands have as little as 30 liters of municipal water available per person a day.

A new World Bank report, Turn Down the Heat, Confronting the New Climate Normal draws on climate data to map out various scenarios if the world continues to heat up at the rate it is doing now. Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group, says the report confirms what scientists have been saying all along—that past emissions have set the planet on an unavoidable path to global warming. Areas north of the 25°N line of latitude will get drier. This includes most of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, and all of Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza, Syria, Iraq and Iran—most of the MENA region, in fact.

Food security is likely to drop, increasing the region’s need for imported grains. Tunisia’s wheat growing season may shrink by about two weeks if temperatures rise by 2°C and about a month if they rise by 4°C. By the end of this century, farming will have to shift 75km north in much of the Maghreb and Mashreq. 

More people mean less water

MENA’s population of about 355 million looks set to double by 2050. Yemen’s population of 24 million isn’t particularly large yet, but it’s growing fast. And together with more qat cultivation (qat leaves have a mild narcotic effect), this has led to a surge in water use—estimated in 2010 at 3.9 billion cubic meters (bcm) against a renewable supply of 2.5 bcm.

The 1.4 bcm shortfall is being met by water pumped up with modern tube wells or boreholes, depleting reserves of underground water. In rural areas, when wells run dry, social tensions escalate into local conflicts. Mass displacement from water scarcity causes migration and fuels the risk of wider conflicts. The dangers posed by flash floods increase in densely-populated cities, particularly for the urban poor. 

The cultivation of the shrub qat (whose leaves have a mild narcotic effect) has compounded Yemen’s water problems. Qat covers 38 percent of Yemen’s irrigated areas; in places, food crops are being uprooted and replaced with it. Since 1970, the amount of irrigation has increased by 15 times, while rain-fed agriculture has declined by nearly 30 percent. Because of water shortages, more than half the investments made in rural Yemen last no longer than five years.

The Yemeni government has struggled to put a modern water-governance framework in place. Water use lies in the hands of hundreds of thousands of fiercely independent local Yemeni households. Top-down regulatory approaches to water management have gained little traction. Bottom-up approaches have had more success, with communities forming associations to demand better services and protect local water sources from pollution.

More weather extremes

Because it lies south of the 25°N latitude, Yemen may get wetter as a result of global warming. But more rainfall may also bring greater extremes, with monsoon-like storms coming off the Gulf of Aden. In 2008, floods in south-eastern Yemen, inland from the Gulf of Aden, caused US$1.6 billion in damages and losses—the equivalent of six percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. In + 2°C world, heat waves could hit low-lying coastal areas of Yemen, Djibouti and Egypt. Sea water is leaking into freshwater coastal aquifers, making water and soil brackish.

Scientists think that taking the right steps now, however, will make a difference. “The good news is that we can take action that reduces the rate of climate change, and promotes economic growth,” said Kim, “ultimately stopping our journey down this dangerous path.”  World leaders, he said, should pursue affordable solutions now, such as carbon pricing, which shifts more investment into clean public transport, cleaner energy and energy efficient workspaces.