(Photo courtesy of Ammar Abd Rabbo)
By Suzanne York, HowMany.org, December 20, 2011
Recently I came across a list of the world's fastest growing cities and urban areas, as reported by the City Mayors Foundation, a U.K. think tank which encourages innovative and sustainable solutions to urban issues.
I was rather shocked that the arid city of Sana'a, Yemen was third on the list (after Beihai, China and Ghaziabad, India).
Water is a critical issue in many countries, especially in unstable countries like Yemen, where experts have warned that Sana'a could be the first capital in the world to run out of water. The current population of 24 million people is expected to double in 20 years. Already the average Yemeni survives on one-fifth of what the World Health Organization considers to be an adequate amount of water.
"The water we are drilling around the capital is now down to the water which fell on Earth 8,000 years ago," said Saleh al-Dubby, director of the World Bank-funded Sana'a Basin Water Management Project stated in 2010. Lester Brown, in World on the Edge, writes that the 2 million residents of Sana'a only have tap water available once every four days. Some wells are a half a mile deep.
Compounding the problem is an increase in the city's population due to rural-urban migration, plus a heavy reliance by Yemenis on qat, a water-intensive, semi-narcotic plant chewed daily. Growing qat consumes 40 percent of all Yemen's irrigation water.
Curbing qat will be an uphill battle. Interestingly, globalization may be more of a contributing factor than culture. In 2009 the New York Times reported that traditional agriculture declined when Yemen was flooded with cheap foreign grain, and farmers replaced food crops with the more profitable qat.
Yemen has a total fertility rate of 5.3 (the world average is 2.5), and 45 percent of its population is age 15 or younger. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) states that early marriage, a high adolescent fertility rate, and low use of family planning tools and concepts contribute to the relatively high total fertility rate.
Yemen is facing a myriad of serious problems beyond rapid population growth, from high poverty levels to limited access to land to desertification and soil erosion. Add water shortages, and you have a strong case for even further political and economic instability in a country currently in a high state of unrest and a stronghold of terrorism.
It's hard enough to deal with just one of these issues, much less all the crises confronting Yemenis. Short term solutions include halting illegal tapping of wells, more efficient and sustainable methods of irrigation, a return to traditional agricultural practices such as terracing and rainwater harvesting, local control of water, and financial support for desalination plants.
In the longer term, explosive population growth can be halted by empowering women and families to make better informed and culturally acceptable reproductive health choices, supported by better access to family planning tools. According to the UNFPA, “gender equity is recognized under Yemen's constitution, but social indicators indicate the relative status of Yemeni women to be among the lowest in the world with rates of female genital cutting among the highest observed”.
It is in the world's strategic interest to help Yemen come to terms with its water crisis. Displaced people - “water refugees” - can only add to the political instability and worsen environmental problems. International funds need to be invested wisely, in resource management, poverty alleviation, womens' rights, and youth education, especially in terms of family planning.
The high rate of population growth will only exacerbate Yemen's problems. But policies focused on empowering women and youth will help lower fertility rates, and provide one answer for easing the severity of Yemen's multiple challenges.
Suzanne York is a writer with the Institute for Population Studies (IP/HowMany.org