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Sana'a, Yemen: The First Capital City to Die of Thirst

Updated on March 3, 2012
Sanaa, the capital city of Yemen.
Sanaa, the capital city of Yemen.

What an absolutely breathtaking city! The capital city of Sana’a in Yemen is an extremely ancient city filled with history, home to architecture that shouts of times gone by; and, quite probably will become the first capital city to die of thirst.

The nation of Yemen has been under siege from an on-going drought for many years now. A short time ago, I wrote about the water riots in Yemen and the drought in Kenya. Now it would appear that the capital city, Sana’a, could become a ghost town in a mere 20 years.

A recent Reuters' investigation into the water crisis in Sana’a profiled a Yemeni water trader that complains that even though his well is 1,300 ft. deep, he’s hardly pumping out any water at all. His well is not unique in Yemen’s mountain-top capital of Sana’a. Even wells that are 2,000 ft. or 3,000 ft. deep are having trouble producing enough water to supply the demands made upon them.

Families all across Yemen have reported being unable to access water for days or even weeks. On days the tankers are due to arrive with water, women are lined up with plastic jerry cans hours before the scheduled time. As the tankers get closer, the women begin to jostle and shove. Some of them have been without water for days; and, they are determined to get water this time. Sometimes all-out fights erupt and three people have been reported to have lost their lives during “water fights” to date.

Sana’a has the infrastructure to support approximately 80,000 people; but, the population has grown to 2 million. Add to this that Sana’a is a mountainous city with a low water table; and, you have the recipe for a ghost town.

Yemen has 21 aquifers. Wikipedia explains: “An aquifer is an underground layer of water-bearing permeable rock or unconsolidated materials (gravel, sand, silt, or clay) from which groundwater can be usefully extracted using a water well. The beach provides a model to help visualize an aquifer. If a hole is dug into the sand, very wet or saturated sand will be located at a shallow depth. This hole is a crude well, the wet sand represents an aquifer, and the level to which the water rises in this hole represents the water table.”

The problem in Yemen and surrounding areas is that demand is far outstripping supply and the water table is being exponentially lowered year after year. Eventually, the water table will be so low that the tiny amount of water remaining will be inaccessible.

Global warming has already created the first “environmental refugees”, now with the water crisis in Yemen; the world may have to deal with the first “water refugees”. As water becomes more and more inaccessible in Sana’a and other highland cities, millions of inhabitants will be forced to move into neighbouring Gulf States or Europe.

At the heart of this crisis is what many refer to as Yemen’s “national drug habit”.

The cultivation of qat (khat) is considered to be root of the water crisis. Qat production siphons off a massive 37% of the 90% of all water used in Yemen for cultivation. Let’s think about these statistics.

If 90% of all water used in Yemen goes toward agriculture; that, leaves only 10% of the water for human consumption, cleaning, cooking, hygiene and everything else. So, the cultivation of qat (a narcotic) is allocated nearly 4 times more water than Yemen’s human population. That does not say much for priorities.

Qat is immensely popular in Yemen and is chewed by Yemeni men throughout most of the day regardless of where they are or what they are doing. Despite the fact that qat contains the alkaloid called cathinone, an amphetamine-like stimulant which causes excitement, loss of appetite and euphoria, it is not only legal in Yemen; it is socially acceptable. It is chewed everywhere – at home, at work, on the street, at social gatherings, anywhere at all. In some cultures, the chewing of qat predates the drinking of coffee.

There are several obstacles to reducing or eliminating the qat crops. First and foremost, the government subsidizes and encourages qat cultivation. It is hard for the people to believe a crisis is real when the government is encouraging the growth of what is supposed to be the main cause of the problem.

Combine this with the fact that many Yemeni make a living either directly or indirectly from the growing of qat; and, the problem becomes even greater. How do you ask a man to give up the job that feeds his family when you have nothing to offer him in its place?

The final difficulty is the feelings surrounding qat and the lackadaisical attitude many Yemeni have towards water and water conservation. As one qat merchant told Reuters, "It's true that qat uses much of our water; but, Yemen cannot live without qat." Another said, "We depend on qat. Without it, Yemen is impossible. God will help us find new water."

Yemeni qat seller.
Yemeni qat seller.

Many Western governments fear that the instability that would arise from an exacerbated water crisis would not only be devastating to the population in Yemen; but, make it a ripe target for terrorist recruitment. 

The population of Yemen stands at 23 million people; and, the population is expected to double within the next 20 years.  If no sustainable way to manage their remaining water supply is found, there will be massive repercussions.  The area will become unstable with violent conflicts over what little water remains.  The Northern provinces have already experienced conflicts over the dwindling water supplies.

If the residents of Sana’a and other hilltop cities have to migrate into the Gulf States and Europe in order to gain access to water, these countries could become overburdened with the huge influx of people in such a short amount of time.

If not properly managed, this could be one of the world’s most challenging crises to date.

Excellent, Excellent Video on the Subject


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    • pippap profile image

      pippap 3 years ago from Surrey, BC

      I have no doubt that the next world war will be fought over water. If you read my hubs, you will see that clean, drinkable water for everyone is a real concern for me.

    • jacksson47 profile image

      John Reeder 3 years ago from Reedley, CA

      It is said that the next world war will be fought over water. Kind of like the Ode of the Ancient Mariner (he was at sea),

      Water, water, everywhere,

      and not a drop to drink.

    • carrentalinfo profile image

      carrentalinfo 6 years ago

      yemen on my list for 2012. can't wait!

    • Tusitala Tom profile image

      Tom Ware 7 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      This is a really informative Hub, well-written and of value. What is the answer to this particualr problem? It's a difficult one. We know the overall problem: too many people in the world! Can it ever be solved without resorting to an Aldoux Huxley-type Brave New World? That's the real problem.

    • travel_man1971 profile image

      Ireno Alcala 7 years ago from Bicol, Philippines

      Water will be invested like gold (is it already?) in the World stock Exchange I'm sure. Water refugees? This is every true. Now that El Nino is plaguing the Philippines, water scarcity is very apparent in the country. Good thing is we just slightly feel in the countryside because we have still trees to sustain the water sources, unlike in many overpopulated cities in the country.

    • sheila b. profile image

      sheila b. 7 years ago

      This was very interesting and informative.