Security in Yemen: Thinking Beyond Terrorism

• Yemen faces severe water shortages within the next decade
• access to water resources is already a critical security matter in Yemen
• to prevent large-scale resource conflict innovative water provision and management solutions are necessary

Last week in Sana’a a British diplomatic convoy was attacked by Al Qaeda militants armed with an RPG. Incidents such as these are putting Yemen in the headlines with stories proclaiming the threat of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) growing presence, U.S. drones striking remote villages, attacks on western embassies and diplomats, and kidnappings.

But in this volatile region security is more than an Al Qaeda presence, more than a tribal rebellion, more than the realist notions of security based on military strength, coercive power, or advanced weaponry.

Security in Yemen is increasingly a matter of resource access and availability. And while scarcity and unequal distribution will not be the sole cause of conflict in the coming years and may not lead to the large-scale resource wars predicted by many international relations scholars,* both will undoubtedly be important exacerbating factors.

Models predict that the capital city of Sana’a will empty its water reservoir in as little as a decade, more than 40% of the population lives on less than USD2 per day, one in three Yemenis suffers from malnourishment, and the country’s population will double in just over twenty years.
Add to this social context the evidence that the fossil reservoirs in Sana’a are depleting at a rate of more than 5 meters per year as agriculturalists sink deeper and deeper wells, the nation’s production of the narcotic qat crop continues to expand, and a poor resource management system inhibits effective government action to control water use and quality. While a tribal management system was long effective in regulating water use, it largely disappeared with the creation of the Republic of Yemen and the deployment of diesel well pumps; what remains is an unregulated and unsustainable use pattern across the country—a race to use more water, faster, before it disappears.

Water shortage has already produced casualties in 1999, 2006, and 2009 and is cited as a factor in dozens of tribal conflicts and disagreements. And as seen in FAS’ interviews and conversations with government officials, tribal agriculturalists, Sanaani, and academics while in Yemen, the people of Yemen are themselves very concerned about future water availability and consider a likely cause of large-scale conflict in Yemen in the near future.

Meanwhile, security analysts consider the southern secessionist movement to be the single-greatest threat to the state’s stability and longevity. Chief amongst their claims against the central government in Sana’a is the government’s failure to provide access to essential resources, especially a stable water and energy supply. And in the wake of the military campaign against the Houthis in Sa’ada, more than 200,000 internal refugees were created and the region suffered extensive infrastructure loss and damage, exacerbating existing resource shortages and inequalities. (The extent of the damage is still largely unknown due to the government’s tight control over travel in and the rural nature of the Sa’ada region.)

Any security strategy toward Yemen must involve a comprehensive plan to improve access to and the availability of water resources. Without addressing this and other critical resource needs, without addressing the broken distribution mechanisms, without addressing a very real future of extreme water scarcity, all the armaments and military interventions and anti-terrorism trainings will be wasted. Western security policies toward Yemen must pull back from a narrow focus on countering terrorism and address these underlying structural problems.

Science diplomacy that focuses on critical environmental issues can be a key security policy tool to mitigate environmental threats, address structural inequities and challenges, and to improve science and global engagement in Yemen. (For more on the potential for science diplomacy see FAS President Charles Ferguson’s piece The Ecology of International Security.)

Felix Arabia, Happy Arabia to the Romans, the one-time breadbasket of Arabia, is on a path to run out of water completely by mid-century. And with no water there can be no stability and security.

Leave a Reply