Yemen’s Water Collapse: The Impending Arabian Human Migration Crisis

By Adela Jones

Environmental stressors present a series of challenges on global migration patterns due to their affect on human survivability. Variations in accessibility to vital natural resources, such as freshwater and arable land for crop production, are natural climatic fluctuations likely to be exacerbated by anthropogenic climate change. Periodic droughts are expected to become more severe throughout the course of the century, especially in arid regions. Excessive periods of drought are more prone to cause natural disasters, including droughts and floods. Such events are significant among developing nations situated in naturally arid climates due to their inability to adapt to significant losses in fresh and groundwater resources. These losses impose dangerous limits on freshwater for human consumption and crop production. The current water crisis in Yemen illustrates the future role of water insecurity inducing environmental migration patterns, as the nation’s naturally arid climate and prolonged, severe droughts cannot accommodate for its population growth, presenting unique security constraints for its neighbors on the Arabian Peninsula.

Water is an often-overlooked component of the current security crisis in Yemen. As the current Saudi Arabian air strike campaign drags on, a pressing long-term challenge looms deep beneath Yemeni soil. Mired by immense poverty and thirty years of political instability, Yemen has endured an unprecedented water crisis over the past forty years. Water and food shortages are common around the capital, Sana’a, a city of over 4 million, and 84% of Yemenis are water insecure, problematic in a nation where nearly 45% of freshwater sources are allocated to a profitable narcotic, qat. Limited government oversight over water usage has led to the formation of illegal wells and water cartels that further deplete meager supplies. Already, Yemenis allocate up to 30% of their annual income towards water, and half of the population lives on less than $2 USD a day. It is estimated that 169% of the nation’s renewable water supply is withdrawn each year, outpacing natural replenishment rates amidst one of the worst water crises in the world. This could have potentially catastrophic consequences for its two major urban centers, Sana’a and Aden, which must accommodate most of the nation’s burgeoning population growth of 4.2% a year.

Accessing trucked water in Sanaa. Photo by Julien Harneis.

Accessing trucked water in Sanaa. Photo by Julien Harneis .

As early as 2017, Sana’a may officially run out of water. Given consumption trends, the rest of the nation may follow, especially given long-term climatic shifts that render Yemen more susceptible to periods of drought and low levels of precipitation. Drought has sparked communities to move into urban areas, as crops are difficult to grow with a lack of water supply and subsidy trends; climate change is projected to only make droughts longer and more severe. Severe natural disasters correlated to warming waters in the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf may give rise to such events as cyclones and tropical storms. The extreme loss of water retention in the soil makes it unable to hold water, causing extreme flooding and destroying fragile infrastructure. As a measure of last resort, individuals consume contaminated sources that pose a significant risk in water borne diseases, including cholera, dengue fever and malaria. Threats emanating from extreme water insecurity, coupled with severe food insecurity, create inhospitable conditions that are not conducive to sustaining human life; anthropogenic climate change will only exacerbate this environmental catastrophe.

Consequentially, extreme water insecurity may have a profound effect on human migration patterns in the Arab Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia. Sana’a is only 400 km from the Saudi Arabian border, making it a more likely destination for migrants than Yemen’s neighbor to the east, Oman. Such trends in migration could present a series of security challenges to leaders in Riyadh. Prosperous Gulf neighbors are more likely destinations for migrants, as these economies depend upon migrant labor for agricultural and domestic work. A surge of refugees in Saudi Arabian border cities is a security concern due to the stress it would place on the government to accommodate such an influx. These individuals would compete with foreign workers from East Africa, India and the Philippines for remedial work, and Saudi Arabia itself suffers from its own water and food scarcity concerns. As a nation without any permanent freshwater supply and completely dependent upon desalination, an influx in migrants would only strain these resources.

Humans cannot survive without water. The impending collapse in Yemen’s water supply has dire consequences for the lives of 25 million individuals residing south of the Saudi Arabian border. It is well within human nature to seek out such vital opportunities for survival. An environmental catastrophe in Yemen poses a significant risk of a crisis that could rival migration out of Syria; with impending projections of climate change on arid climates, a waterless Yemen is a very real consequence of such alterations in environment. Thus, it is the responsibility of Yemen’s neighbors to work towards developing sustainable solutions. Simple water catchment systems, implementation of local governance of groundwater resources and agricultural subsidies for crucial crops are steps that can taken to mitigate a potential human migration crisis and protect the regional security of the entire Arab Gulf.

Adela Jones studies Environmental Security at the University of Southern California. Her research on climate change and migration has taken her to Washington, D.C., Saudi Arabia, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia and Malaysia, and led to a report on the foreign policy of climate change displacement for the Australian Shadow Ministry as a Parliamentary Intern for the Australian Senate.

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One comment

  1. […] On target? Adela Jones of USC writes: “Already, Yemenis allocate up to 30% of their annual income towards water….As early as […]

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