Yemen: Unfiltered neoliberalism has worsened the water crisis: Part II

Yemen: Unfiltered neoliberalism has worsened the water crisis: Part II
Opinion: Water resources are drying up in Yemen, a country that has been ravaged by war for six years. Climate change, population growth, and poor agricultural policies are to blame, writes Helen Lackner.
6 min read
07 Jul, 2021
Yemen's water supply is far below "absolute scarcity" on the Fallenmark scale. [Getty]

This is Part II. Read Part I here.

Landowners and political supporters

While the international financial institutions (IFI) controlling development investments aimed to promote the private sector at the expense of the public one, Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime focused on strengthening his political support base among influential rural leaders. While his regime did not deliberately promote neoliberal economic policies, his political objectives had a similar impact. 

To garner electoral support from powerful and influential rural leaders, Saleh supported policies that increased their wealth, in order to gain their loyalty and strengthen their position. Most of these rural leaders were large landowners dependent on income from high-value crops, whether qat (for internal consumption) or fruits (for export). Some of these leaders' income was used to purchase support from their tribal or other "constituencies". Saleh relied on rural leaders to deliver votes and support from the population in their areas. 

The success of Saleh's political organisation, the General People's Congress (GPC) was important for maintaining a political majority, both for internal and international public opinion, as political opposition from various parties was real and significant. Yemeni democracy was not a sham: the opposition was real and could well have won elections without the well-managed manipulation of the populace.

Thus, the patronage policies of the Saleh regime worked in harmony with the privatisation policies of the IFI to facilitate larger landholders' plans to increase high-value export crops. In Yemen, this meant deep well irrigation became the only reliable regular source of water. Rain-fed irrigation was neglected both with respect to financing and agricultural research, despite its suitability for staple grain crops that contribute towards national food security, such as sorghum and maize and, to a lesser extent, wheat. These crops, except in the regions of Thame and Wadi Hadhramaut, are mainly grown by thousands of poor smallholder farmers.

"Smallholders found their shallow wells dry and reduced irrigation led to reduced yields, making the poor poorer and more dependent on other activities for survival"

Thus, state policies, supported by major IFIs, encouraged the development of well-irrigated agriculture by providing both cheap credit for irrigation infrastructure and subsidies for the diesel used for pumps at the time. These policies contributed to the enrichment of landowners who had easy access to loans thanks to their close relationship with the Saleh regime. 

A major side effect of these policies was increased social differentiation in rural areas. Smallholders found their shallow wells dry and reduced irrigation led to reduced yields, making the poor poorer and more dependent on other activities for survival, and often leading them to sell their land, creating a vicious cycle of impoverishment.

It is worth noting that the Cooperative and Agriculture Credit Bank (CACB) was the main supplier of these loans. Its management was a major challenge for the same international financiers as it made little effort to collect debts, resulting in distinctly unhealthy balance sheets.


In addition, it was not carrying out its prime official responsibility of helping smaller farmers grouped into cooperatives. Yet it continued to ask for additional international financing. A number of half-hearted international efforts to reform its procedures were an ongoing theme during the first two decades of the Republic of Yemen, which was established in 1990 by the unification of the two Yemeni states.

Solar energy for irrigation

With respect to water management, the situation has not changed significantly in the decade since the Saleh regime ended. 

During the 2012-2014 transition period, Yemeni politicians focused on retaining and extending their own power, neglecting development and long-term issues such as agriculture and water scarcity, and the immediate needs of the majority of the population.

International development assistance effectively stopped due to the disagreements between the Yemeni government and the IFIs over the management of the $7.9bn pledged in September 2012, which was never translated into operating projects on the ground.

Household-funded solar energy for domestic electricity expanded dramatically in both urban and rural areas due to the absence of network supplies, and this rapidly extended to water extraction, initially for domestic purposes. 

To ensure🧒and their families have access to clean #water in #Yemen, @UNICEF_Yemen connected water wells to solar panels so that💧pumps are solar power-operated. This reduces the use of fuel & shortens the long road for people in #Amran governorate to fetch water. @Sida

— UNICEF Yemen (@UNICEF_Yemen) June 25, 2021

Since the war started in 2015, solar power for irrigation has also taken off in a big way, thus offsetting any potential protection of the aquifers which might have resulted from the shortage of fuel for diesel-operated pumps, as regular fuel crises are a major feature of the war economy.

Given the high investment costs involved in accessing the deep aquifers, solar water pumping is effectively only an option for very wealthy landowners, a dynamic likely to contribute to the further depletion of the aquifers. While the war period has witnessed a slight change in the identity of the individual beneficiaries of a war economy distorted by the absence of any rules and regulations, wealth remains mainly in the hands of the few.

Establishing sustainable water management

The importance of introducing and forcefully implementing sustainable water management policies cannot be overestimated and should be taken into consideration not only by Yemenis but also by the leaders of neighbouring countries, as well as the broader international community involved in Yemen. 

"Yemen must adopt strategies far removed from those of the past, primarily abandoning the neoliberal approach and giving priority to the entire population's need for potable and domestic water"

If significant areas of Yemen become uninhabitable due to lack of water, people will emigrate to the parts of Yemen where there is water, thus increasing political tensions and the potential for conflict in those areas. Eventually, these people will move beyond Yemen's borders and suffer forced migration. A quick scan of a map shows that their destinations are likely to be other peninsula states, rather than the Horn of Africa or elsewhere.

The war will eventually end. Although it would be best for Yemen and Yemenis if sustainable water management policies were introduced immediately, this is unlikely to happen while leaders are preoccupied with power, fighting, and illegitimate enrichment. 

However, even now, at the community level, there are areas where improved water management policies could be introduced, especially where water basins are under the authority of a single entity concerned with people's living conditions. Development funders should assist such initiatives, laying the foundations for an improved future for Yemen.

In order to establish sustainable water management in Yemen, its leaders and population must adopt strategies far removed from those of the past, primarily abandoning the neoliberal approach and giving priority to the entire population's need for potable and domestic water, followed by the needs of livestock. 

Where these needs have been satisfied, supplementary irrigation could be used for high-value crops, prioritising smaller landholders, rather than wealthier ones. Research and extension for high-value cash crops, and high-yielding and drought-resistant staple crops should be prioritised both by government and international financiers. This will help Yemenis cope with the effects of climate change, along with increasing population density.

Helen Lackner is an independent researcher who has worked and lived in Yemen for over fifteen years, five of them in the RDPY between 1977 and 1982. She has just published Yemen in Crisis, Autocracy, Neo-Liberalism and the Disintegration of a State (Saqi, 2017).

This article was originally published by our partners at OrientXXI.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.