Water Scarcity Problem in Yemen

by Huda F. Alkaff
Institute of Ecology, The University of Georgia
Athens, Georgia 30602-2202, USA
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Yemen Update 42 (2000):51-54


Yemen is located within an extremely arid region. It has limited renewable freshwater supplies, and mostly depends on its fossil groundwater reserves. In some areas, depletion of these nonrenewable groundwater resources is taking place at an alarming rate due to over-pumping in order to meet agricultural requirements.

Population growth, improvement in the standard of living, and urban migration, coupled with the absence of conservation programs, have brought about high domestic water consumption, which itself doubled from 1980 to 1990. As a result, Yemen became a water scarce country in 1990.

Based on current trends and future projections, renewable water resources such as surface runoff, desalination, rechargeable alluvial aquifer and reclaimed wastewater are already greatly insufficient to meet the expected demand. Since the whole Arabian Peninsula region, in which Yemen lies in its southwest corner, is suffering from the same water scarcity and imbalance problems, there is an urgent need for regional water plans and solutions. Mutually agreeable water-sharing terms and treaties among neighboring countries, expansion of available water supply through conservation, efficiency, and reuse, and environmental education, research, and management are some of the important steps towards reducing the current and near-future imbalance between water demand and supply in Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula.


The view of planet Earth from outer space reveals that it is different from other planets in the Solar System. Earth is a predominantly blue planet because of the water that covers three-fourths of its surface. Life on planet Earth would be impossible without water. Although earth has plenty of water, it is distributed unevenly, and serious water supply problems exist. In regions where freshwater is in short supply, such as deserts, obtaining it becomes critically important. Arid lands, or deserts, are fragile ecosystems in which plant growth is limited by lack of precipitation. Semiarid lands receive more precipitation than deserts but are subject to frequent and prolonged droughts. Forty percent of the world's population lives in arid and semiarid lands, primarily in Asia and Africa.

Water Scarcity: Definition and Causes

Water scarcity is not the same as drought. Droughts are exceptional meteorological events. Water scarcity in much of the Arab region &endash; and elsewhere &endash; is not temporary or exceptional but endemic, a part of everyday life. Water scarcity can be measured by the number of people per unit of available freshwater. Significant water stress occurs with population densities of 500 to 1,000 people (represented by dots in Figure 1) per million cubic meters (mcm) of water a year, whereas absolute water scarcity occurs when densities increase to more than 1,000 persons per mcm/year (Falkenmark 1989).

Persons/106m3 yr

100 600 1000 2000 3000
quality and dry water stress present water barrier season problems absolute water scarcity

Figure (1): Definition of water scarcity (Falkenmark 1989).

While the symptoms of water scarcity are easy to identify, its causes are not. There are four different causes of water scarcity (Clark 1993):

  • Aridity, a permanent shortage of water caused by a dry climate;
  • Drought, an irregular phenomenon occurring in exceptionally dry years;
  • Desiccation, a drying-up of the landscape, particularly the soil, resulting from activities such as deforestation and overgrazing, and
  • Water stress, due to increasing numbers of people relying on fixed levels of run-off.

The first two of these causes relate to the climate, the second two to changes that result from human activity. Jointly or separately, climate and human activity are depriving millions of people of the water they need.

Figure (2): Geographical Location of Yemen in the Arabian Peninsula

Yemen: One of the EXtreme Cases in Water Scarcity

Water supply problems are particularly pronounced in arid regions, notably in the countries of the Arabian Peninsula (Figure 2): Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, The United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Yemen &endash; a region that covers 3.11 million square kilometers and has a total population of 31 million people (Al-Gazi 1990). Yemen lies in the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula, surrounded by the Red Sea from the west, Saudi Arabia from the north, Oman from the east, and the Arabian Sea from the south.

These nations are in general devoid of reliable surface water supplies and depend entirely on groundwater, desalination and wastewater recycling to meet their water requirement. Rapid population growth along with the expansion of irrigated farming; urbanization, increased economic activities, and improvement in the standard of living have brought about substantial water demand increases. In particular, ambitious irrigated agriculture programs and extensive urban expansion, coupled with the absence of conservation measures, are causing significant overdraft of water resources beyond their natural renewal capacity. Total annual demand has doubled in the ten-year period 1980-1990, and the agricultural sector is taking substantial volumes from fossil groundwater reserve (Table 1).

Table (1): Water Demand of Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula, 1980-1990 (in mcm)

1980 1990 Total Demand Total Demand

Domestic/Industrial Agri Domestic Industrial Agri (1980) (1990)
Yemen 98 1,600 144 72 2,500 1,698 2,716
Arab. Pen 1,086 4,862 2,703 330 19,502 5,948 22,535
Sources: MOP 1985, Al Fuysail et al. 1991, Al Mahmoud 1992, Bushnak 1990, Uqba 1992, El-Zawahry 1992

Water Imbalance in Yemen

During the last decade, extensive development, rapid population growth, and substantial improvement in the standard of living in Yemen have all intensified an imbalance between rising water demand and very limited existing water resources. Yemen experienced more than 50 percent annual increase in domestic and industrial water demand over the last 10 years. Substantial increases in agricultural water use were also experienced. Ironically, this water demand as high as it by the standards of Yemen is equivalent to only 0.6 percent of the global water demand and is considered the lowest in the world.

In 1990, the agricultural sector in Yemen consumed an estimated 2,500 mcm, mainly from mining of deep aquifers (Al-Ibrahim 1990). The estimated agricultural water demand is expected to reach 3,250 mcm in the year 2000 and 4,000 mcm by 2010, assuming an annual growth rate of only 1 percent. This can be set against a projected total water requirement for Yemen for the years 2000 and 2010 of 3,610 and 4,572 mcm, respectively, as shown in Table (2) (Al Alawi and Abdulrazzak 1994). The major consumer, it is clear, will continue to be the agricultural sector.

Based on current trends, future programs, and projections, renewable water resources such as surface runoff, desalination, rechargeable alluvial aquifer and reclaimed wastewater cannot meet the expected demand. Supplies available from renewable sources for the years 2000 and 2010 are estimated at 1,496 and 1,517 mcm, respectively, as shown in Table (3) (Al Alawi and Abdulrazzak 1994), which is far less than the projected water demands. It is expected that the deficit of 2,114 and 3,055 mcm for the years 2000 and 2010, respectively will be offset through the use of groundwater reserves, especially from the deep aquifers, as shown in Table (3). However, the groundwater reserves can barely match the increasing water demand, which leaves the acute problem of water imbalance practically unsolved.

It should be pointed out that the non-renewable fossil groundwater stored in the deep aquifers in the Arabian Peninsula is shared among the Arabian Peninsula's countries. The aquifers cover two-thirds of Saudi Arabia and some of them extend into Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, The United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen as well as into Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. Surface water availability in these shared basins is negligible, but each represents a shared alluvial (shallow) aquifer. Developing each requires an agreed plan for pumping in different locations and understandings on groundwater recharge. Achieving both shared use and optimum use of trans-border shallow and deep groundwater resources presents a major challenge to decision-makers in the region.

Therefore, to reduce the imbalance between water supply and demand, emphasis must be based on (Postel 1992):

  • Development of regional water plan.
  • Mutually agreeable water-sharing terms and treaties among neighboring countries.
  • Slowing of population growth.
  • Evaluation of unrealistic agricultural ambitions.
  • Expansion of available water supplies through conservation, efficiency, and reuse.
  • Improving thrifty irrigation techniques, suitable crop selection, rainwater harvesting, water-saving plumbing fixtures, and increasing wastewater recycling.
  • Water conservation education, research, and management.

Literature Cited

Al Alawi , J. and M. Abdulrazzak. 1994. Water in the Arabian Peninsula. Pp. 171-202 In P. Rogers and P. Lydon (eds.). Water in the Arab World: Perspectives and Prognoses. Harvard University Press.

Al-Fusail, A.M., B. M. Al-Selwi, G.A. Said, and A. Badr. 1991. Water resources and population distribution in the Republic of Yemen. Proceedings of First National Population Policy Conference. Oct. 20-29, Sana'a, Yemen.

Al-Gazi, A. 1990. Migration movement between rural and urban centers in the Arab world. Journal of Security, 6: 87-120.

Al-Ibrahim, A.A. 1990. Water use in Saudi Arabia, problems and policy implementation. Journal of Water Resource Planning and Management. American Society of Civil Engineers, 115: 64-74.

Al-Mahmoud, M.A. 1992. Water resources development in Qatar. Proceedings of the First Gulf Water Conference. Oct. 10-14, Dubai, UAE.

Bushnak, A.A. 1990. Water supply challenge in the Gulf region. J. of Desalination, 78: 133-145.

Clarke, R. 1993. Water: The International Crisis. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

El-Zawahry, A.E., and A.A. Ibrahim. 1992. Management of irrigation water in Oman. Proceedings of the First Gulf Water Conference. Oct. 10-14, Dubai, UAE.

Falkenmark, M. 1989. The massive water scarcity now threatening Africa-why isn't it being addressed? Ambio, 18: 112-118.

Ministry of Planning (MOP). Saudi Arabia. 1984. Fourth Development Plan. 1985-1990 for Saudi Arabia. Riyadh: MOP, Saudi Arabia.

Postel, S. 1992. Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity. The World Watch Environmental Alert Series. W. W. Norton and Company, NY, USA.

Uqba, A.K. 1992. The need for national and regional integrated water resources management in the Gulf cooperation council region. Proceedings of the First Gulf Water Conference, Oct. 10-14, Dubai, UAE.

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