New Article in Science & Diplomacy on the International Science Partnership

We recently published an article on the International Science Partnership in the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s journal, Science & Diplomacy. The article describes our pilot project to address water and energy challenges in Yemen and places it in the broader context of engagement between the technical communities in Yemen and the United States.

Of course, the article posts against the backdrop of turmoil resulting from events of last week, when hundreds of people marched on the American embassy in Sana’a in protest to a film produced by an Egyptian-American that was denigrating to Islam. Yet the turbulence only underscores why it is important for the United States to strengthen its relationship with Yemen in order to weather these storms. To that end, the natural resource challenges facing Yemen, daunting as they are, can be seen as an opportunity for the United States to demonstrate that its interests are aligned with those of the Yemeni people.

Politics aside, it is also worth repeating that the sheer direness of Yemen’s situation demands attention. Although our ISP project focuses mainly on water and energy issues, the food crisis has become every bit as urgent. Hunger has doubled in Yemen over the past two years and now affects nearly half of the country’s 25 million people. Continue reading

U.S.-Yemen International Science Partnership Project Underway

The FAS International Science Partnership (ISP) pilot project is set to take off in Amman this week with a workshop hosted by the Middle East Scientific Institute for Security (MESIS). The workshop will bring together an international team of engineers from the U.S. and Yemen to design collaborative projects that help address both countries’ interests in ensuring access to a safe and reliable supply of water and energy. Continue reading

A New Role for the US Government in Yemen

Today Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh sits in a hospital in Saudi Arabia, the victim of an assassination
attempt.  Back in Yemen, the opposition is cautiously optimistic about what this means for the future of Yemen.  And as the U.S. State Department and its allies continue to publicly call on Saleh to resign from office and make way for genuine, democratic elections, it is paramount to remember that the removal of Saleh should not be the end game in Yemen.  A successful, stable, secure Yemen needs more than one man’s fall from power.

In the meantime, what are other areas of the U.S. government doing and saying about Yemen?

Just one week ago the U.S. House of Representatives passed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012. Included in this act is updated language that affirms and strengthens the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) with respect to “the ongoing armed conflict with Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces.”   In justifying the new language, which gives legal grounding to broadened executive actions in the war on terror, House Armed Services Committee Chair, Representative Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) explicitly cited Yemen’s terrorist threat and the actions of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen.

The accompanying press release directly states that “the threats posed by al-Qaeda cells in Yemen and Africa underscore the evolving and continuing nature of the terrorist threat to the United States.”  Former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey praises the updated language as adding “order and rationality” to the current ad hoc authorization of military actions and detentions in the war on terror.

Nevertheless, the language does explicitly authorize U.S. military incursions into any country–such as Yemen–perceived to be or contain a security threat to America.

This stance, while bold, does not mark a new era in U.S.-Yemeni relations.  Rather it highlights the narrow lens through which the American government views and interacts with Yemen.  Under the ongoing Yemen strategy, counterterrorism efforts against AQAP take precedence over all other matters.

For the past four months Yemen has been engulfed in anti-government protests that seek to force Saleh to resign from office.  Since January 2011 more than 50 protesters have been killed, hundreds have been wounded, and the economic fragility of this country exposed as oil exports collapse and food and fuel prices soar.

Throughout the protests the U.S. narrative has focused on this crisis as a political matter only, with the primary issues being the implications of Saleh resigning on Yemeni political stability and capacity to combat AQAP.

However, the answer to the question “Is Yemen failing?” does not come down to one man.  As early as the 1960s the U.S. government recognized that the key barriers to development and success in Yemen are the country’s lack of natural resources, shortages of educated and trained manpower, scarcity of water, and divisions in the country’s social structure.  While Yemen has improved in key indicators such as literacy rates and GDP, to date none of these critical development issues have been significantly addressed.

The current conflict  has already exacerbated and will continue to exacerbate these development concerns.

Hydrocarbon development. A net oil and gas exporter, Yemen depends upon oil for more than 70% of its declared GDP.  The country nevertheless possesses only 0.2% of the world’s total oil reserves (2.7 thousand million barrels proven in 2009) as is believed to have already reached peak production.  Attempts to compensate for the expected oil revenue loss through natural gas development, namely a 5-year $4 billion project to build and supply a liquified natural gas (LNG) terminal, have been stifled by political instabilities, tribal tensions, and reluctant foreign investment.

Since the start of the anti-government protests this national income crunch has only gotten worse.  Daily oil exports have been cut by more than 100,000 barrels per day, down by more than one-third from 270,000 barrels, and worker strikes and pipeline cuts have completely halted both production and export for days on end.  Internally, over the last three months the combination of pipeline disruptions and limited domestic refining capacity has fueled severe electricity, gasoline, and heating fuel shortages within Yemen.

Water. By 2050 several main cities, including Sana’a and Taiz, are expected to drain their water aquifers—effectively running out of water.  Current withdraw rates show the aquifers under Sana’a withdrawing at up to 5-6 meters annually (data from the German Technical Office).  In a water sector already characterized by water management struggles, corruption, bloody fights over irrigated land and water access, prolonged absence of central authority will likely reduce the already limited compliance with Yemen’s environmental and water laws.  Even if central fighting were to stop tomorrow, the Ministry of Water and the Environment is in disarray in the wake of Minister Abdulrahman al-Eryani’s resignation on March 22nd and the leveling of the Ministry building (located in the Hasaba district, near the Ministry of the Interior) during the last week ‘s violent conflict between government troops and tribesmen supporting Sadiq Al Ahmar.

Population. With or without Saleh, Yemen must confront one of the highest population growth rates in the world (more than 3%), a poor education system, high unemployment, and one of the world’s most significant gender equality gaps.  In a population of 23 million, over 45% of people lived on less than $2/day in 2010, a level defined by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as being poverty level.  With many livelihoods either directly or indirectly dependent upon hydrocarbon extraction and tourism, this poverty level has without question risen over the past six months.

Food. Once considered the breadbasket of Arabia, Yemen is now a net food importer.  The World Food Programme considers 32% of Yemen’s population to be food insecure and 12%  severely food insecure.  While there is significant evidence that social networks and communities in Yemen ensure that even the poorest families are not calorie deficient, there is significant nutrient deficiency and many families depend upon borrowing in order to meet their basic food needs.

To aid Yemen in addressing their extensive social, economic, and resource challenges the U.S. Department of State (DOS) has requested just over $120 million in aid for FY 2012.  Of this, just 57 percent or $68.6 million will go towards all economy building, education, health, and democracy building activities.  To offer perspective, in FY 2012 DOS alone requests $5.6 billion for global foreign military funding.

As the U.S. government develops its policies toward Yemen it must look beyond a narrow perspective of counterterrorism and seek to address key causes of insecurity—environmental, social, and economic, as well as political and military. Neither authorizing military force against actors in Yemen nor providing security funding is enough.  Addressing root causes of terrorism and instability means sustained and significant engagement over critical issues including education, resource management, governance reforms, and economic and financial restructuring and development.

When the Embassy staff return to Sana’a and engage with the Yemeni government, whatever its form, the US must work with Yemen to:

  • rebuild key institutions  and capacity;
  • support those existing development and business projects that have been most successful;
  • initiate new U.S-Yemeni partnerships that strengthen Yemen’s internal scientific, economic, governance, and business capacity; and
  • push the Yemeni government for meaningful governance reforms.

Engage Now: Science Diplomacy in the Middle East

Revolution in Egypt (c) Al Jazeera
  • In the wake of revolution the U.S. must immediately engage with Egypt and Tunisia through S&T initiatives.
  • The U.S. should: expedite student visas, fund additional scholarships, support dialogues between U.S and regional universities, and recommit existing S&T and education aid packages.
  • S&T activities should be a key component of building better, more resilient relationships with MENA countries.

The Middle East and North Africa are currently in a period of intense instability and transition and we do not know what the other side looks like.  Within the last month revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have ousted Presidents Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, respectively, while Yemenis continue to protest against the rule of President Ali Abdullah Salah, who has agreed to step down in the next election.  All three of these leaders are secular strongmen who have ruled their respective countries for at least twenty years and are widely viewed in the region as pro-American.

While vastly different, each of these three countries has the potential to be an important economic, political, and security partner for the United States.  Currently America’s relationship with all three heavily emphasizes military and anti-terrorism cooperation, often at the expense of our economic and political relationship.

In fact the U.S. government is the leading military supplier for all three countries, with military assistance counting for over 70% of their total country aid package.  Egypt alone received over USD 1.5 billion in military and economic aid in 2010, second only to Israel in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, while Tunisia received USD 20 million and Yemen received USD 160 million.  Of this almost USD 1.7 billion in aid, less than 800 million went to all non-security aid programs, which include economic development, civil society and governance building, and education.

To provide perspective on the size of U.S. military support, the President’s FY 2012 requested budget for the entire Office of International Science and Engineering (OISE) at the National Science Foundation requests just over USD 58 million, up over 21% from FY 2010.  Under this budget funding for OISE, which serves as the interagency focal point for all international science and engineering activities, equals just over 22% of the military aid for Egypt alone in FY2010.   And given the current Congress, even this relatively small budget is likely to face stiff opposition.  But should the United States be focusing so intently on military and security aid to the MENA region or could other forms of aid and engagement play an equally important role?

Despite decades of high military funding for Egypt and other MENA countries, Egypt and Tunisia’s revolutions reveal that the countries are neither stable nor economically and politically successful.  A different approach to U.S. economic assistance and engagement is needed.  The U.S. S&T sector will play a critical role in this new approach because of the sector’s ability to develop new economic opportunities, the popularity of U.S. science, and the focus on positive engagement.

Over the past two years the U.S. government has begun a new initiative in the region that aims to further and deepen science and technology (S&T) ties between America and the Muslim world.  Popularly termed the “Cairo Initiative,” through the Mulsim-Majority Countries Initiative the government has appointed three science envoys, scaled up existing S&T projects, increased dialogue on S&T and education, and developed (on paper) five centers of excellence, though none have received appropriations and remain unrealized.

In the face of the recent political upheaval and revolution, S&T partnership, assistance, and support play an even more critical role, both because of the disruptions to S&T that have occurred and because of the unique opportunities provided by these circumstances.

The S&T challenges created or exacerbated by political upheaval and revolution can broadly be grouped into: education, economic, foreign relations, and damages to or destruction of resources and physical infrastructure.

In each category some challenges and opportunities will be immediate, while others will be long term and may not be most effectively addressed until a new government and power structure is in place.

In the immediate future the greatest needs and challenges for the S&T communities will be:  the disruption of academic institutions, the temporary halting or holdup of student visas, international aid holds, and lost economic opportunities.  The U.S. government and S&T community can play a critical role in responding to and overcoming these challenges.

Immediately, embassies in each country should work to get their visa processing—especially of student visas—back up to speed.  The U.S. embassies should expedite the processing of visas for all students who have a place at a U.S. academic institution.  Simultaneously, academic institutions in the U.S. should work with students to make up any time they have missed as a result of their visa holdup and inability to leave the country.  For the upcoming Fall 2011 semester, the U.S. should look for opportunities to increase study opportunities and scholarships in the U.S. for students from Egypt, Tunisia, and other countries where academic institutions may not be on stable footing.

In many Middle Eastern countries, top university positions are politically appointed.  Where the revolution or political transition has created voids in S&T leadership and where there are opportunities to restructure how leadership positions are decided, U.S. universities can immediately begin dialogues with partner institutions in the Middle East on how to restructure leadership based on criteria such as merit and fit with institutional needs.  The government can support U.S. universities in these efforts by creating a pool of funding for delegations of university administrators and leaders to visit and engage with existing partner institutions in Egypt, Tunisia, and other countries undergoing similar upheaval.

A third critical role the U.S. government can play in the immediate future will be the recommitment of all promised S&T aid and funding, especially for funding that benefits S&T stakeholders at many levels.

In Egypt, for example, USAID has promised USD 50 million for S&T higher education in Egypt, to be channeled to the Ministry of Higher Education.  Over the past few months, USAID has worked with Ministry officials, scientists, and other stakeholders to develop a model to leverage this funding to engage and benefit stakeholders and provide economic opportunities for the S&T community.  Efforts such as these must not be lost.  Rather, the U.S. government must recommit to this and similar assistance packages, get staff back on the ground to determine how the funding model has changed, and actively engage with S&T stakeholders to provide aid that is appropriate, need driven, and stakeholder supported.

At this critical juncture in the Middle East, the U.S. must seize our opportunities to engage with, to support, and to build our positive relationship with the S&T community.

Engaging Yemen on the Sources of Insecurity

  • US aid for Yemen goes predominantly to military and hard security projects.
  • To confront the key sources of instability the U.S. must look beyond military assistance.
  • Tier two engagement will be a critical component of this strategy, especially in looking at challenges to natural resource and human security.
government protesters in Sana'a, 2009

As Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen makes headlines yet again for attempted terrorist activities against the United States, the US government is preparing a $150 million package aimed at training and aiding Yemeni security and military forces.  This unsurprising move represents business as usual for US-Yemeni relations; a continuation of security and terrorism-centric dialogue, policy, and funding that pervades all levels of the two countries’ engagement.    In fact, of the $63 million in aid money to Yemen in FY10, well over half goes toward military and security assistance.

In his October 29th speech on the attempted cargo plane bombings, President Obama announced that the US government intends to “strengthen a more stable, secure and prosperous Yemen so that terrorist groups to not have the time and space they need to plan attacks from within its borders.”   This statement is coupled with an announcement to increase the military aid to Yemen to $150 million.  Considering that the President’s FY11 budget called for just over $100 million in total aid for Yemen, 48% of which was for military and security assistance, this new announcement triples military aid and makes it approximately 75% of Yemen’s aid money.

While security is the primary focus of the FY 11 budget, under its new Yemen strategy USAID is also working to address some of the soft security issues that fuel instability.  Included in this FY11 budget are projects on:

  • Military and security assistance;
  • Responsive governance, a multi-sector project expected to be funded at $43 million for 5 years and aimed to strengthen public policies and institutions;
  • The Community Livelihoods Project, a multi-sector program expected to be funded at $125 million for 5 years with the goal of economic stabilization through government services, job creation, civic participation, and responsive local governance.
  • Urban refugee aid for those living in Sana’a;
  • Public health; and
  • Supporting an independent media.
AQAP, 2009, courtesy of The Long War Journal

This $200 million in aid compares to packages of over $1.5 billion for Egypt, $730 million for Iraq, $680 million for Jordan, $550 million for the West Bank and Gaza, and $250 million for Lebanon.

A recent article by Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace points out that Yemen suffers from more than just the hard security challenges associated with AQAP, the Houthi Rebellion in Sa’da, and the Southern Mobility separatist movement in the South and in Hadramawt[1]. Boucek notes that, “Beyond its security concerns, Yemen is on the brink of economic disaster, suffering from poor governance and quickly dwindling water supplies.”

The article rightly calls for the U.S. government to expand its aid focus to help Yemen: improve its legal system and laws, fight corruption, increase policing capacity, improve the economy, alter the land distribution and ownership system, and enhance the education system. These policy prescriptions are standard practice in the Middle East—multilateral aid packages with the goals of addressing economic instability, furthering governance and rule of law, promoting civil society, and improving education and with debatable effectiveness. Boucek further calls on the U.S. government to partner with Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s largest donor nation at $2 billion a year.

While these prescriptions will be important components in a comprehensive Yemen strategy, they fall short of addressing Yemen’s immediate and long term stability challenges, especially those

related to:  natural resources, population growth, and human health and capacity.

Robust track one and track two Yemeni-U.S. engagement will be necessary over the coming years.  Track two approaches will be especially important for addressing these core resource, population, and human challenges as their solutions are highly technical in nature, the target populations often live in areas with limited central government involvement or legitimacy, and effective solutions will require individual buy-in and stakeholder engagement from diverse actors.

Note that an effective strategy must include cooperation and engagement with the tribal and religious networks and stakeholders that are central components of Yemen’s social structure and civil society.  Tribes especially will be important partners in Yemen’s ongoing stability.  As an example of this, the leader of Yemen’s largest Bakil tribe, Sheikh Naji Abdul Aziz Al-Shayef, recently called for the creation of a coalition aligned with the government against Al Qaeda.

In the immediate future, the U.S. must support both track one and especially track two engagement in:

  • Resource ownership. An immediate problem, Yemen’s oil and natural gas are running out and its water is running out even faster.  The U.S. must support scientists, technologists, and other experts in working with Yemeni government officials, scientists, and stakeholders to determine resource distribution, replenishment rate, and must begin dialogues with stakeholders on how resources are distributed, allocated, and managed.
  • Land ownership. Before radically overhauling the land ownership system, the U.S. must work with the Yemeni government to institute legal safeguards that ensure that traditional land tenure systems are recognized. Current land reform efforts seek to secure land titling through registration and ownership legislation.  However, much land is owned at the tribal level, is communally owned, or is owned by the local mosque for the benefit of the mosque and the area’s poor (generally as a result of land donated through zakat or alms) and land reformation has the potential to further increase poverty as those without registration are displaced.
  • Science and technology (S&T) cooperation. The U.S. government should take advantage of the Arab world’s favorable opinion of U.S. S&T to develop exchange programs and build internal Yemeni S&T capacity, focusing on issues such as water, energy, and biosecurity, which are of mutual need and interest.
  • Refugees. Located not just below Saudi Arabia, but just across the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden from Africa, Yemen is a country of 23 million people, with almost 200,000 refugees.  The majority of these refugees are from Somalia, with small groups from Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Iraq.  The U.S. must work with civil society in the U.S., Yemen, and internationally, as well as with the UNHRC, to develop a strategy for permanent resettlement and to aid refugees as well as the populations in the South of Yemen where the refugee camps are located.
  • Internally displaced persons. Yemen has an estimated 150,000-250,000 internally displaced persons, mostly in Sa’da and the North.  The U.S. must work with local tribes, international human rights and refugee organizations, and the government of Yemen and to develop a strategy for infrastructure and housing development, for public health initiatives, and for economic development.

Long term formal and informal engagement on the following issues is critical:

  • Resource management. With dwindling resources, especially of water and fossil fuels, management is an increasingly critical challenge.  Sustainable resource use and allocation mechanisms are critical.   Their development can be best facilitated by the U.S. supporting tier two collaborations between experts, resource managers, and stakeholders, backed by tier one cooperation with politicians to develop supportive legislation, markets, and profit sharing mechanisms.
  • Infrastructure development.
  • Public health. Foci of these efforts should be infectious diseases, material and reproductive health, access to basic medical services, and population control issues.

No one policy or engagement strategy will be a panacea for Yemen’s root destabilizing factors.  Instead, the U.S. and other donor nations must focus on a variety of strategies at multiple levels of engagement that enhance human capacity and education, stabilize resource use and availability, improve governance, engage Yemen in the global S&T community, and approach Yemen as both a unique state and as a critical actor in a volatile region.

[1] For an overview of the Southern Mobility Movement (SMM) in Hadrawawt, see Michael Horton’s article “The Growing Separatists Threat in Yemen’s Hadramawt Governorate,” TerrorismMonitor Volume VIII, Issue 40.

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.

Monitor, Manage & Share: Addressing Environmental Research Needs in Yemen

Over the past three weeks in Sana’a, rain has fallen nearly every day.  So much so that the primary drainage canal for the Old City (the Salia)—normally a roadway—has run with feet of water on multiple occasions.

See  the Salia running with water in this FAS Youtube video.


It is an arid city, but not one without water, receiving some eight inches of rain per year.  And yet despite this annual rainfall, some estimates predict that Sana’a will essentially run out of water within the next decade.  Where does the water go once it has fallen?  How much is expected to fall over the coming years?  How much of the shallow groundwater aquifer is refilled when it rains?  And how quickly is that aquifer being drained?

Most of these questions cannot be answered as Yemen’s water and environmental monitoring capacity is highly limited.  In fact, for the Sana’a basin, there are only two sets of water monitoring tools (one for precipitation and one for groundwater wells) available to university and non-government researchers.  Considering that some models show Sana’a running out of groundwater within a decade, this monitoring limitation is a critical barrier to the development and implementation of effective solutions and management strategies.

Enhanced monitoring is one of the key needs identified by researchers and stakeholders within Yemen.

In meetings over the past two weeks dozens of academics, ministers, and NGO environmentalists have identified key areas for research and debated the primary needs of both the Yemeni research community and Yemen’s environment.

As expressed by the scientists, future research should focus on environmental challenges related to water, energy, and agriculture (for more on Yemen’s environmental issues, see our blog on systems research).  In order to develop meaningful solutions to these environmental challenges, specific needs must be met.  These needs broadly fall into the following categories:  improved resource monitoring and management, increased access to resources, and improved knowledge sharing and collaboration.

To undertake meaningful environmental research and address these critical challenges, capacity must be developed in the following areas:

  • environmental monitoring, especially of water, ecological systems, and energy resources;
  • accurate and comprehensive data of key environmental systems;
  • models of environmental systems that include physical, social, economic, and cultural factors;
  • water and energy management, including the development of markets and long-term monitoring capacity;
  • access to additional water and energy supplies and infrastructure; and
  • domestic and international funding and support for applied research.

In addition, the capacity of the research community itself must be strengthened. For example, this group of researchers has no formal mechanism for knowledge or resource sharing and has had little internal communication in the past.  One researcher, in fact, thanked us for coming because before this conference he had never known there were people at universities working in renewable energy—our coming to his university was the first time he had the opportunity to know about and possibly collaborate with these colleagues.

This example demonstrates one of the many capacity limitations that confront the Yemeni environmental research community.  In order to overcome these limitations, researchers have identified the following areas as priorities for community capacity building:

  • improved access to physical, financial, and personnel resources (including but not limited to equipment and facilities, technology, research funding, international training and expertise, data, and international journals and publications);
  • a strengthened voice in Yemen both within government and amongst the general population;
  • better internal knowledge and information sharing;
  • enhanced communication with the international research and technical communities; and
  • a long term strategy for cooperation with international researchers, funders, and stakeholders.

As conversations over our two weeks of meetings constantly reiterated, as the International Science Partnership moves forward all research projects undertaken must not only address the critical environmental issues in Yemen, but must also develop the country’s capacity to engage in meaningful environmental research and address the concerns and needs of the Yemeni research community itself.

A Systems Approach to Yemen’s Critical Environmental Issues

9 August 2010

More than just a resource, water is the essential force for life.  And in an arid region such as the Middle East, its scarcity forces water and those places with abundant water to take on near-mythical properties.  Called Felix Arabia or Happy Arabia by the Romans, Yemen was long the breadbasket of Arabia, renowned for lush green mountains and abundant agricultural output.

Fast-forward 2000 years and a variety of environmental, social, and political issues strain the water resources of this country—there isn’t enough precipitation, enough surface water, or enough groundwater.  Fossil reservoirs are becoming quickly depleted, with some scientists measuring groundwater depletion rates in the Sana’a basin of 5-6 meters per year. And this demand will not decrease; with a population growth rate of over 3% for the country and about 5.5% in Sana’a, the need for water will increase across the residential, commercial, and especially agricultural sectors.

Add to this the energy demands of a growing population eager to develop a higher standard of living, and the challenges and limitations becomes more complex still.

The entire Yemeni power grid has an electrical generation capacity of only 900MW, enough electricity to run only 550,000 average houses in the American Mountain West region**.  Meanwhile, only 30-40% of the population is grid connected and of those with grid connections, the majority encounter frequent—even daily—power outages.  Assuming that 40% of the population is connected, the Yemeni power grid has enough electricity to provide only 4.2MWhr of electricity to each household every year—less than half of that used in any region of the United States.  And as this limited capacity must meet not only residential needs, but also the demands of the commercial, agricultural, and industrial sectors, the grid is already severely strained.

These anecdotes illustrate the critical environmental challenges faced by Yemen–challenges that collectively are likely to threaten the security and stability of Yemen within the next decade. Moreover, these interrelated challenges illustrate that all environmental issues must be tackled in a systems framework. It is not enough to consider one problem in isolation.  As the issues themselves are highly interconnected and interdependent, the multiple and varied effects of any given project, model, or solution must be considered.  Only by doing so can academia produce the applicable, nuanced research needed to improve Yemen’s environmental future.

As evidenced by numerous conversations with experts in engineering, water, renewable energy, resource management, policy, and environmental geography, the key environmental challenges facing Yemen relate primarily to water, energy, and agriculture, as well as pollution, climate change, and ecosystem management and conservation.  Some considerable work is being done by experts in Yemen in these areas; however, university faculty are constrained by limited resources.  Without exception, all experts interviewed have expressed the need for applied research that addresses these environmental challenges, yet is sensitive to the political, cultural, and social realities of present-day Yemen.

  • Water:  With some models predicting Sana’a will run out of water within 20 years at most, water is the most pressing of Yemen’s environmental needs.  Key areas for research include: groundwater monitoring and health, water efficiency and limiting water use (especially in the agricultural sector), harvesting new water, adaptation to water scarcity, desalination, and applying traditional water management models.
    • Specific research needs and topics include:  data collection; monitoring and modeling of water resources; local climate change modeling to predict future water availability; pollution monitoring and mitigation; collection of best practices for water in arid environments; urban and agricultural management and use practices; traditional water management and storage methods; water scarcity adaptation; increasing energy production so as to not increase the sector’s water demand; desalination; transparency in the water sector; water quality standards; and the likely outcome and difficulties associated with water allotment conflicts; saltwater intrusion; and rainwater harvesting.
  • Energy:  With a limited electricity supply dependent upon natural gas and oil for production and a highly decentralized population, sustainably electrifying the grid will be a difficult challenge.  Key areas for research include:  rural electrification, application of renewable energies, the environmental impact of fossil fuels, minimizing water use by the energy sector, and energy use in the built environment.
    • Specific research needs and topics include:  data collection and mapping; energy use and supply monitoring and modeling; renewable potential of Yemen; application of renewable energy technologies to agriculture and small industry; developing a decentralized energy grid; linking water collection and desalination technologies to renewable energies; applying renewable technologies to urban environments; exploitation of geothermal energy; traditional building technologies to minimize residential energy use; urban planning; reducing energy losses to grid; transparency in the fossil fuel sectors (especially related to environmental impacts); technology transfer of best environmental technologies for drilling and transport; pollution caused by electricity production and transportation; impact of exhaust gas on localized climate changes and public health; and collection of best practices from the fossil fuel sector.
  • Agriculture:  Responsible for 90% of Yemen’s annual freshwater use, agricultural problems are highly interrelated with the country’s water and pollution issues.  Key areas for research include: water monitoring, pollution, and management; alternative crops, technologies, and techniques that minimize water and chemical use in agriculture; and food production to meet the needs of a growing population.
    • Specific research needs and topics include:  improved agricultural data; monitoring of water use in agriculture; adopting cost-effective new practices and crops to minimize water use; management of wells and water for agriculture; environmental impact of insecticides, fertilizers, and other agricultural chemicals; the real water use and environmental impact and costs of qat; deforestation for agricultural needs; desertification; application of traditional water management practices; cash crops to make small agriculture cost effective; application of renewable energy technologies to agricultural needs such as water harvesting, sills, and pumps; intensive farming to increase food production; and local climate change modeling to predict changes in agriculture seasons.

A New Step for Yemeni-U.S. Science Engagement

6 August 2010

Welcome to Sana’a.  To set the scene for the city, imagine eight inches of rain a year, falling on a city at 7000 feet with a population of 2 million, growing at over 5% per year.  Add in a limited and sporadic electrical grid, a water-hungry cash crop (qat) that has replaced much food production, a tradition of flood agriculture, and an instable political and security situation, with limited government control outside the main cities.  Foreign governments and media cry out with warnings of terrorism and express concern as to whether Yemen will become the next “failed state”.  With this as a background, we asked ourselves, “Do Yemeni researchers have the interest and the capacity to engage in long-term collaborative science projects with the U.S. scientific community?”

After two days of successful meetings and conferences, we can answer yes to both these questions and state that the International Science Partnership (ISP) vision is one step closer to fruition. Even more importantly than the capacity for research that the Yemeni science community has demonstrated, the leading faculty, government ministers, and NGOs have all affirmed a wholehearted support for the ISP and for greater science engagement with America.

FAS President Charles Ferguson affirms this message, stating that this visit has been one of the most positive experiences of his career.  Never has he worked with a scientific community and a ministry so positive and enthusiastic about science engagement and so willing to share their knowledge and visions.

On our first day in Yemen the University of Sana’a hosted a conference to introduce and obtain feedback on the ISP, to review the energy and water research being carried out in Yemen, and to discuss research and resource needs.  Attendees included over 40 water and energy professors from Sana’a University, Aden University, Taiz University, and Hadramout University, as well as ministry researchers and environmental NGO officials.   Attendees contributed to the meeting by presenting the work being done in their department, their research needs, and the goals for their future.  The research presented was largely applied rather than basic or theoretical and covered a wide array of topics, ranging from the application of solar technology to desalination and agriculture to irrigation for arid climates, electrical grid optimization, and biomass utilization.

On the second day, we visited with the Minister of Higher Education, and the Minister and Deputy Minister of Water and the Environment.  Each of these officials gave an overview of the critical environmental issues facing Yemen, the country’s greatest needs, and how he would like to see a U.S.-Yemeni science partnership take shape.   Through frank and engaging discussions, we gained a fuller picture of the socio-cultural, political, economic, and resource challenges facing Yemen and the current approaches to solving these challenges.

And in answer to our query of where our program fits and where the United States fits in addressing these challenges, the ministers requested full engagement.   They implored FAS and the U.S. to break away from the sole-focus terrorism/guns/security conversation and to open a more productive dialogue.  A dialogue over shared environmental concerns and solutions, on education, and on developing technical capacity for Yemen to address its own internal challenges.

And what are these internal challenges and critical needs?  More coming soon…