How Yemen's water crisis has reached new depths of despair

Yemen's water shortages has crippled an already broken society [Getty Images]
20 August, 2021
As the six-year conflict shows no signs of abating and climate change continues to impact land and families, millions in Yemen could fall deeper into what may eventually become a forgotten crisis.

"We need water! When will you help us?" These are the desperate cries of Abida. 

"The situation in this camp is a disaster. We would rather die than live like this," another woman echoes.

Internally displaced at an isolated camp in the desert city of Ma’rib, Abida’s home is now a tarpaulin cloth supported by a pole, which barely protects the family of seven, from the unbearable forty-degree heat. At this point, she had no access to water for five days.

Stories like these in Yemen are appallingly widespread. Already a water-scarce region, the civil war has exacerbated the situation, with over fifty percent of the population struggling to buy and find enough clean drinking water to sustain themselves and their families each day, according to the UN.

With aid cuts and inflation, intervention is vital if families in Yemen are to survive in this devastating landscape

The ongoing conflict has severely damaged crucial safe water sources, which will cost millions to rectify. With an already outdated infrastructure going back to the British colonial era, urban areas such as Ma’rib and the capital Aden were already struggling to supply piped drinking water directly to local homes. Fast forward to the present day, the population of these governates continues to surge, as those fleeing violence or leaving rural villages with water shortages, flood into the cities.

State-run water companies only provide to households that can afford the costs, and even then, the water service is only available four hours a day twice a week.

In both urban and rural locations families are forced to try and find free water from public fountains and wells, such as those located in local mosques. Unfortunately, even the mosques are turning people away because they are unable to keep up with the increase in demand. Many also rely on trucked water they buy at extortionate prices, dictated by the suppliers.

Water is heavily rationed and is only available during one-hour windows, which normally take place only three times a day [Getty Images]
Water is heavily rationed and is only available during one-hour windows, which normally take place only three times a day [Getty]

This year international charity Muslim Hands visited a water truck point in Aden, home to over one million Yemenis. Hoards of women, children and men with their containers and donkeys in tow, take on the exhausting journey to the water truck every day. 

One man told the Muslim Hands team that he has had no clean water in his home for two years. He said, "look how many people are here struggling just to get a drop of water. Many are ill and still have to carry home water containers every day. Some days I can’t fetch water for my family because I faint on the way. Water scarcity has become worse in the last two years. Trying to find a reliable water source here is like digging for gold."

With aid cuts and inflation, intervention is vital if families in Yemen are to survive in this devastating landscape. Muslim Hands has pledged to spend an initial £1.5 million on nineteen water projects across Yemen, which will support roughly 3.2 million beneficiaries with safe drinking water.

The largest of these projects, currently in construction, is to rehabilitate the existing water system in the governates of Aden and Lahj. This is to increase water production and improve the water supply for 1.7 million people – more than half of these being women and children.

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Funds are also being raised by the charity to replicate this process in the city of Ma’rib – supporting a further 1.2 million beneficiaries. Other projects include restoring deep water wells, installing solar panelling and building new sustainable distribution points, making safe water easily accessible to all.

For decades, the Arab world’s poorest country has also grappled with the impact of climate change, with mass flooding, drought and outbreak of disease amongst the obvious signs. 

Ahmed, a farmer who lives in the mountains of Abyan is responsible for his family of nine. As sheep grazers, the arid lands where he lives means finding an adequate water source is extremely difficult. They are completely dependent on what they grow on the land for their sustenance and as the weather gets drier the crop quantity reduces.

"Prior to the intervention, it was difficult for me to travel to the nearest water well, which at times did not work so we were left with no water. When we did find water, my donkey found it hard to carry home because of the unsafe roads," he explains.

Those that are most impacted by water scarcity in Yemen are women and children, who make up 80 percent of those in acute need and 75 percent of internally displaced people.

Women dominate the domestic sphere as the main caregivers and are responsible for how water impacts their household. They walk miles every day to fetch water that is often unsafe, making them and their children susceptible to diseases such as cholera. Women often prioritise their family’s water needs and therefore lack access to clean water to live comfortably.

Put simply, water is life and access to safe water will mean the difference between life or death

Naima from Khokha is a mother of five in her thirties. Her husband tragically passed away from a mine explosion leaving her as the head of her household. She said, "I work by knitting palm leaves. Life is very tough and I have a chronic illness. Me and my children walk for miles with our buckets and containers each day to get water from a well. I only have enough to give my children bread and tea. I am very ill, and I don’t know how I will continue to provide for my children."

Muslim Hands’ first water project in Yemen was the rehabilitation of a water well in the village of Bir Al-Sheikh in Abyan. The poorly functioning well meant that thousands of IDP’s flocking to this area were going without sufficient water for weeks at a time.

Perspectives

Because of this, families in the area, including Fadhel’s were worried that if intervention didn’t take place, unsafe drinking water, as well as a poor sewage system, would continue to spread the risk of disease. He said, "we were miserable because my mother was unable to cook and there was not enough water for our family of eight to wash and clean with. Now safe water is available for all the families in the village. We have seen an increase of people settling in the village because of this water point."

As the six-year conflict shows no signs of abating and climate change continues to impact land and lives, families in Yemen have no choice but to carry on, navigating some form of normalcy.

Though their stories show sheer resilience, the harsh reality is that unless drastic intervention is taken by charities like Muslim Hands, millions in Yemen will fall deeper into what may eventually become a forgotten crisis. Put simply, water is life and access to safe water will mean the difference between life or death.

Abdul Rahman Hussein is Country Manager in Yemen for the UK Charity, Muslim Hands.