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.

FAS confronts global earth and environmental systems challenges

29 July 2010

The Earth Systems Program at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) was developed to seek solutions to environment and resource security challenges by developing and promoting sustainable, scientifically sound, and transparent policies, practices, and technological developments.

To meet this goal the Earth Systems Program works in the following  areas:

  1. Transparency. Improve dialogue and deliberation over and understanding of key environmental issues and challenges by transparency in environmental research, policy decisions, and building trust and communication between scientists, policy makers, and the public.
  2. Technology. Create tools to aid researchers, scientists, and policymakers in analyzing and visualizing complex issues and systems.
  3. Inquiry. Better scientific and public understanding of key socio-environmental and earth systems issues through undertaking and supporting systemic, multidisciplinary research that utilizes principles of scientific inquiry.
  4. Policy. Promote policy to further national and international environmental and energy sustainability and security and advocate for political processes that engage key stakeholders and scientists in deliberations.
  5. Partnership. Develop long term, multidisciplinary collaborations and partnerships between U.S. and foreign scientists and engineers to solve key environmental and technical issues.