Locals fill their water jerrycans from public taps in Sana’a, Yemen, one of the most water-stressed countries in the world. Photo by: Al Harazi / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

As one of the most water-stressed countries in the world, Yemen faces social and economic disruption of legendary proportions.

National per capita access to water, estimated at 125 cubic meters per year, is already one of the lowest in the world yet is projected to drop to 62.5 cubic meters by 2025. A 900 million cubic meter shortfall in annual renewable water resources results in the extraction of groundwater at a rate that far exceeds natural recharge. Recent studies predict the depletion of multiple aquifers including the Sana’a basin by 2040. The loss of ground water for the country’s capital, and its 2 million residents could provoke a population exodus not seen in Yemen since the collapse of the Marib Dam in 575 A.D. This situation arises out of a classic “tragedy of the commons” problem: Yemeni citizens have drilled wells and pumped groundwater without regard to sustainability or future impact. While common ownership and management of water resources is a challenge in any country, in Yemen, it is a matter of survival.

Garrett Hardin's “Tragedy of the Commons” article in a 1968 edition of Science magazine provides an understanding of what a social good (like access to water) means and how that common asset can be managed for the benefit of the general public. Hardin explained that individual and absolute freedom to use a common asset results in a negative outcome. Preventing a negative outcome requires action to exclude or limit access to the common good. This excludability — which is the key to sustainability — can be achieved either through private or public ownership along with the potential to create cultural and reciprocity mechanisms that would encourage good stewardship.

With 90 percent of Yemen’s water resources dedicated to agriculture production, the solution to the country’s long-term water issues will depend on finding ways to communally and more effectively manage those resources.

Water management in Yemen has failed — private ownership, public control, and/or culture and reciprocity mechanisms have been ineffective. Private ownership means digging a well and pumping until the aquifer drops too low and then drilling a deeper well leading to a complete depletion of accessible groundwater.

Public control requires a government that has a monopoly on violence, not the case in Yemen, to enforce existing water access and regulation laws. Finally, cultural and reciprocity mechanisms have worked to a degree but depend on the use of tribal violence which generates larger social problems and usually does not control water extraction over a large enough area to prevent depletion of key aquifers.

What is the way forward, then, for a country facing these types of water constraints? I believe Yemen’s answer lies in her history and her future.

Traditionally, mechanisms were in place to capture rainwater, allocate it effectively for agriculture and domestic use, and ensure equity and fairness within watershed areas. These areas were usually controlled by a dominant clan or tribal group and reciprocity rules ensured social order. Within these social structures, “water user groups,” to various degrees of sophistication, were formed to maintain and manage water resources. Addressing the tragedy of the commons issue in Yemen should focus on reviving and revitalizing these traditional water management systems. This is critical not only in terms of long-term access to water, but also impacts agriculture development and the incomes of smallholder farmers. A recent study indicates that the value of agriculture production is directly correlated to maintenance of terraces; the more valuable the crop being grown, the more likely the terraces will be maintained. With 60 percent of the population employed in agriculture, finding ways to promote sustainable water use in these production systems will ensure a better, more secure Yemen.

Traditional water management is also important in moving away from khat production which uses half of all agriculture water and is primarily supplied from tube wells. While khat — a plant whose leaves have drug-like effects and are chewed daily by millions across the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa — is currently lucrative, it will face challenges as water tables continue to drop and the cost of diesel, required to pump the water, continues to rise. At some point, even khat production will become economically unsustainable under current tube well/surface irrigation methods. Moving crops other than khat to traditional water systems will put them in a more competitive position for the long term. Finding more high-value markets for those crops like coffee or grapes that can compete with khat could result in its decreased production over time.

The long-term solution to Yemen’s water problems, I believe, will be found in helping water user groups return to the rich heritage of traditional water management. By combining these water systems with high value crops and new technology drip irrigation, solar power pumps for water transport, greenhouse production, Yemen can create value and increase the incomes of smallholder farmers. Increased incomes can mean sustainable water use through these traditional systems.

In Yemen, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and implemented by Land O’Lakes International Development, the Competitive Systems for High-Value Crops project is moving forward with this strategic approach by working with Yemeni farmers through a cluster working group mechanism to manage water collection and use in combination with specialty coffee, horticulture and honey production. The grass-roots democratic approach represented by these groups will ensure its success and sustainability as citizens come together to address a common problem and protect a common good. Yemen can become a living example of how people, working collectively in small groups, can manage a critical resource and, in turn, create a better future. In the end, we all benefit.

#DemocracyMatters is a three-week series exploring the intersection of democracy, development and natural resources management in partnership with International IDEA, the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

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About the author

  • Michael maxey 002

    Michael Maxey

    Michael Maxey is a senior agriculture adviser with over 30 years of experience on USAID development programs in Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa and the Middle East. He has served as senior manager of a wide range of large agriculture development programs. He is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese.

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