SANAA (Reuters) - With a belch of acrid, greasy smoke and a jolt that shakes its moorings, the pump on Yemeni water farmer Jad al-Adhrani’s plot of land roars to life, and the race to squeeze the last drop of water out of Yemen’s parched earth resumes.
Gesturing across his dusty patch of ground in Hamal, on the outskirts of the capital Sanaa, he counts himself lucky to still be drawing water after having dug down only 500 metres, but knows that it cannot last.
“When it runs out,” he says, “I’ll dig again.”
The water he sells for drinking and washing to residents of the affluent neighboring Sanaa district of Hadda comes from an aquifer that thousands of wells studding the city and surrounding hills have sucked nearly dry.
They raise the prospect that the city, with its medieval centre of slender brick towers rising above narrow, angular lanes, may conclude two millennia of urban history by becoming the first capital in the world to use up all its water.
Such a fate, say the officials tasked with controlling water use, is due to a tangled politics of patronage that President Ali Abdullah Saleh perfected in 33 years of pitting his foes and enemies against one another.
Though Saleh has bowed to U.S. and Saudi pressure and surrendered his office after a year of protests that split the military and threatened to spiral into civil war, the power structures he nurtured live on, and show no signs of being dismantled.
“The state - let’s put that in quotation marks, since there really isn’t one - allowed and helped and took part in the uncontrolled digging of wells,” says Abdelsalam Razzaz, minister of water in Yemen’s transitional government, which will govern the country until elections are held in 2014.
“The water crisis is more about institutions than water and it basically amounts to the absence of the state. So long as that’s missing, the water is a site for pillage.”
The water emergency pits what people drink against what they grow, and more specifically what they chew. The production of qat, the waxy green leaf that all classes of Yemenis munch for its mild stimulant effect, is dominated by Yemen’s tribal leaders, military officers and politicians.
The verdant squares dotting Artil outside Sanaa, whose landlords and local notables include members of the same tribal faction as Saleh’s family, illustrate the explosive growth of unregulated cash-crop farming that experts say is parching Yemen.
A driver carrying water through the village, which is dominated by a base housing units of the Republican Guard, the elite military unit with a counter-terrorism brief led by one of Saleh’s sons Ahmed Ali, pointed to plots of potatoes, feed barley and, of course, qat.
“Our income is meaningless. This container is a few thousand rial, a few times a day,” he said. “What they grow? That’s all the coins everybody has in the country, all the time.”
Salem Bashuaib, head of the National Water Resources Authority, which is intended to oversee the allocation of water nationwide, places qat at the top of the list of crops whose cultivation has grown tenfold since the 1970s, with up to half of that farming relying on wells tapping aquifers.
“We have an annual decline of three to six metres in the Sanaa basin, and about 40 percent of the water here is used for qat,” he says.
“Ninety percent of what’s taken from the ground is for agricultural purposes. This city would be feasible if its water was used only for drinking. With agriculture as it is now, it is impossible.”
Prices for an approximately 2,500-litre container of water that would supply a Sanaa household of four for a maximum of five days leapt to 10,000 rial (about $47) at the peak of fighting last year between pro- and anti-Saleh military units, from about 1,200 rial before protests escalated. They have since eased to below 5,000 rial.
Yemen’s impending water catastrophe has drawn Germany’s development body and the World Bank, among others, to give funds and technical assistance to projects aimed at staving it off.
The latter estimates Yemen’s fresh water availability at 135 cubic metres per person each year; the World Health Organization draws a line defining extreme water poverty at 1000 cubic metres.
Neighboring oil giant Saudi Arabia, fearing a political and environmental crisis may lead to the collapse of the state and an influx of refugees, has donated fuel to Yemen and offered to fund water projects.
The proposals range from the technically daunting - desalinating seawater to supply the city of Taiz, whose water crisis exceeds Sanaa’s - to the politically inconceivable.
The latter include a proposal to transfer the bulk of Yemen’s qat cultivation across the Red Sea to Ethiopia, while preserving the distribution rights and consequent economic clout of producers.
Bashuiab, whose office relies on international donors for over 90 percent of its budget, believes that the plan would have would have alleviated Sanaa’s water crunch, but ran up against the interests of what amounts to Yemen’s qat lobby who were wary of any disruption to the trade.
He put the blame for the situation squarely on the government, pointing to the fact that the interior ministry has seldom enforced a 2002 law stipulating wells can only be dug with government approval.
“The decisions regarding these questions do not rest with ordinary people,” he said. “What can you do? If there is no political will, then you cannot enforce the law.”
Razzaz, his colleague in the cabinet - now working from a home that a prominent Saleh aide offered as office space following the destruction of water ministry offices in last year’s fighting - echoed the sentiment.
Razzaz fears Yemen’s institutions - already weak in a country where tribal and regional affiliations have counted for more than central authority - may be too dysfunctional to deal with the looming catastrophe.
“The officials themselves have traditionally been the most aggressive well diggers. Nearly every minister had a well dug in his house, and the same is true of the mashayikh (tribal leaders) and any official with the money to dig a well,” he said.
“I’d very much like to restore the credibility of Yemen’s institutions say to the donors ‘Thank you, we’ll hold ourselves accountable and keep ourselves honest’,” he said.
“But as long as the institutions are incapable, my message to the donors is that they are better off running the projects themselves.”
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall