Writtle University College and ARU have merged. Writtle’s full range of college, degree, postgraduate and short courses will still be delivered on the Writtle campus. See our guide to finding Writtle information on this site.

Water shortage compounds country’s instability

Taiz, Yemen

Villagers in Taiz clashed over access to a natural spring in 2013, resulting in two deaths. But in a country where resource shortages are common, this was far from an isolated incident.

Yemen’s decades of political instability, exacerbated by ecological crises, has resulted in a complexity of problems for the country.

As one of the poorest Arab countries, Yemen is also one of the driest. The avergae Yemeni has access to only 140m3 of groundwater annually, while the average per capita access across the Middle East is 1,000m3 a year. Predicted to be the first nation in the world to run out of water, Yemen’s water crisis is a significant casualty of failed governance and environmental mismanagement.

The backdrop

Even prior to the current conflict, Yemenis struggled to access sufficient, safe water. A growing population, impacts of climate change, lack of law enforcement regarding water use coupled with a high proportion of water used to grow khat all contributed to frequent water shortages across the nation.

Despite having insufficient water to grow their own crops sustainably, over 50% of the agricultural water in Yemen is used to grow khat. Khat is a mildly narcotic plant grown across the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Acting as a stimulant, its leaves have chewed by communities in this region as a social custom for centuries. An estimated 90% of Yemeni men chew khat leaves on a regular basis.

The cultivation of khat accounts for roughly 50% of Yemen’s water each year. It is a highly water-intensive crop, which displaces vital crops such as fruits and vegetables. Two outcomes of this, beyond obvious water depletion, have included soaring food prices leading to increasing levels of food insecurity. In essence, prior to the current conflict, poor management of resources was one factor which led to water scarcity country-wide and the ironic situation of the abundant crop, khat, not filling Yemeni stomachs with much-needed calories or nutrients.

With Yemen’s water table falling by 200cm each year, and a central government slow to action plans around desalination to reduce water, stress public protests began mounting. In 2011, the 32-year regime of President Ali Abdul Salleh began crumbling, as Yemenis publicly protested for his resignation. The political instability that ensued comprised of violent attacks on the presidential compound, oil refinery and pipeline infrastructure, conducted by various terrorist groups such as local tribes and the al-Qaeda.

The escalation pathway

Yemen was unable to generate revenue as fuel exports came to a halt and consequently food imports slowed. Endless queues at petrol stations and rolling blackouts became commonplace in cities. Unemployment rates rose dramatically as people lacked fuel to commute to work. This encouraged outrageous price hikes of petrol on the black market to meet the demand of desperate consumers.

Concurrent water shortages were worsened by fuel shortages, a result of the damaged oil pipelines. Water pumps to agricultural and rural areas relied on fuel to operate, hence impeding the supply of water to remote areas. Without stable access to water, food and fuel, Yemenis were angry and desperate to make ends meet. This frustration led to violence in demonstrations and disputes at local and national levels. According to Yemen’s leading newspaper, al-Thawra, it is estimated that 70% to 80% of conflicts in the nation’s rural regions are water-related.

The event

Taiz, one the driest and most populated cities in Yemen, located in the country’s south-west, has been struggling desperately throughout the Yemeni water crisis.

On 27 March 2013, a violent dispute broke out between the two neighbouring villages of Qurada and Al-Mirzah, on the outskirts of Taiz’s Sabir District. Both villages had been fighting for access to a natural spring, which lies between them, for nearly a decade. Despite increased security measures being implemented earlier in March 2013, two men, one from each village, were killed in the dispute.

The struggle to access water continues for the people of Taiz, and across Yemen as a whole as the war enters its fifth year. Food security levels continue to be exceedingly concerning: in 2018, half of the population faced 'pre-famine' conditions. While it is difficult to determine the extent to which water plays a role in this conflict, it is clear is constitutes a part of the web of inter-related factors contributing to the current state of affairs.

Early intervention opportunities


  • Effective water/environmental/agricultural management.
  • Facilitate alternative water sources being made available.
  • Dispute mediation between villages sharing equal access to the spring.
  • Collaborate with international and regional security initiatives to mitigate extreme violence.
  • Enforce appropriate and severe action on those responsible for previous violent acts to prevent reoccurrence and mitigate instability, and future fragility.

During the event

  • Couple enforcement sent before the event with dispute resolution experts.
  • Table a short-term water access plan for both villages, with a view to build a longer term plan.


  • Address political leadership – democratic and representative governments are likely to incorporate fairer governance.
  • Effectively manage water, fuel and food resources to ensure long-term and sustainable access by Yemenis – requires investment in research, infrastructure and education.
  • Take action on those responsible for provoking violence to prevent the situation from reoccurring.
  • Resolve water dispute officially and immediately to prevent further conflicts.
  • On a national scale: make immediate and thorough plans to address water crisis.
  • Execute plans immediately to ensure people have sufficient access to water every day.

Key themes

Food shortages, fuel shortages, government, inflation, poor agricultural management, poverty, unemployment, unrest, water shortages.


  1. Mahr, K., 14 December 2010. What If Yemen Is The First Country To Run Out Of Water? Timehttp://science.time.com/2010/12/14/what-if-yemen-is-first-country-to-run-out-of-water/.
  2. Heffez, A., 23 July 2013. How Yemen Chewed Itself Dry. Foreign Affairshttps://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/yemen/2013-07-23/how-yemen-chewed-itself-dry (accessed on 29 August 2019).
  3. Kirby, A., 7 April 2007. Yemen’s Khat Habit Soaks Up Water. [online] Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/6530453.stm [Accessed 29 August 2019].
  4. Bakri, N. and Goodman, J.D., 27 January 2011. Thousands in Yemen Protest Against Government. The New York Times.
  5. Stephens, P., 13 August 2012. Time running out for solution to water crisis. IRIN.
  6. Right Vision News, 6 May 2011. Pakistan: Yemenis face growing fuel crisis amid unrest. Lahore: Right Vision News.
  7. Pamuk, H., 20 July 2011. Analysis: Yemen’s fuel mayhem to continue. World News.
  8. Logistics Cluster, 28 August 2012. Fuel Crisis in Yemen. Logistics Cluster.
  9. Kasinof, L., 27 June 2011. As Yemen Teeters from Political Unrest, a Humanitarian Crisis May Not Be Far Off. The New York Times.
  10. Almasmari, H., 4 July 2011. Three-mile-long queues at petrol stations as Yemen’s fuel crisis starves economy. The National.
  11. Wikpedia. Water Supply and Sanitation in Yemen. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_supply_and_sanitation_in_Yemen (accessed on 29 August 2019).
  12. Water Wars in Yemen. Middle East Studies Centre, Ohio State University. https://mesc.osu.edu/blog/water-wars-yemen (accessed on 29 August 2019).
  13. Butters, A. L., 25 August 2009. Is Yemen chewing itself to death? http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1917685,00.html (accessed on 30 August 2019).


Water shortage compounds country's instability