why they’re angry

I wanted to briefly revisit the water supply of Yemen, a known hotbed for al Qaeda and frequent target of American drone attacks.  During the uprising against former “president” Saleh, tribal militiamen fought the Republican Guard in the streets of Sanaa, and to the south, tribesmen blew up a key pipeline connecting the capital city with its source of domestic fuel supplies, the port of Ras Issa.  With the fuel supplies cut off, citizens of Sanaa found out what life is like without water — their groundwater table is so deep that the resource can only be pumped out with diesel pumps, so the lack of energy and an electricity blackout meant that water was a hot commodity on the black market.

Sadly, this is the wave of the future for Yemen, unless a new supply (desalination or mass water recycling) is found.  The article I cited above has a section about the cultural losses from water mismanagement:

Every quarter of the Old City has its own walled garden, owned by the state and rented to local residents at a nominal fee. Local families tend to the gardens on behalf of their neighbors, distributing the fruit and vegetables they produce on the basis of need. In the past, each garden had its own well, attached to the local mosque, which also serviced the local community, while most crops were largely rain-fed. Until a new sewage system was built in the 1980s, wastewater from the mosques and houses was also used to irrigate the crops.

…Now, the garden is irrigated using water from new diesel pumps which draw water from wells drilled hundreds of yards underground. Most of the water is now fed to a set of taps built along the side of the local mosque, from which locals who can’t afford trucked supplies collect water most mornings.

Today, the walled-in gardens are full of cracked earth and the wells are long dried up.  Anything that grows is irrigated with diesel pumps.  One reason the diesel pumps appealed is that the government heavily subsidizes fuel, but the water supply doesn’t respond to subsidies — it responds to good management and rainfall.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Yemen is a hotbed of disgruntled people for years to come.

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…