too many straws in the milkshake

People talk about the Ogallala aquifer, which provides irrigation water to a large swath of the Midwest, drying up.  And that is a concern, yes.  But take a look at Yemen: their aquifer has been essentially unregulated for decades, and the water table is now 500 m below the ground surface, declining about 3-6 m per year (compare with up to 1 m per year in the worst parts of the Ogallala).  Every farmer that can afford it in his fields and every person who can afford it in his home has a private well.  How much water do they use?  As much as they feel like.  The water is increasingly used for qat, a mild stimulant plant chewed by all classes, but whose production is concentrated among tribal leaders, military officers, and politicians.  The “qat lobby” has convinced the government not to enforce a 2002 law stipulating that no well may be dug without government approval.

The water is essentially drying up beneath the city of Sanaa, and has already perhaps dried up in Taiz.  Sanaa may become the first capital city to fail due to complete exhaustion of its water resources.  Realizing the political instability inherent in this prospect, places like Saudi Arabia and Germany are offering support to develop alternate water supplies, which amount to desalination in this part of the world.  That or moving qat production elsewhere.  Perhaps the city could survive on its own water resources if 90% of the water were not being used for agriculture (40% for qat).  The desperate fight between urban water demand (mainly ordinary people) and agricultural demand (here the qat lobby), largely for an inessential crop, should strike fear in the heart of all Californians.  Better our convoluted regulations and water diversions than that mess…

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