Yemen is becoming one of the most closely watched countries in the Middle East; ranked 18th in Foreign Policy’s “Failed State Index.” And one of the issues that we have been curious about here in the Natural Security program is how Yemen’s water crisis is combining with existing trends in Yemen to undermine stability and contribute to violence. I recently spoke with Gregory Johnsen, a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern studies at Princeton University and a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen, who spoke with me about his experiences and helped me better understand the interplay between Yemen’s water scarcity and the myriad security challenges there.
Johnsen has written for a variety of publications including Foreign Policy, The American Interest, the Christian Science Monitor, the Boston Globe and West Point's CTC Sentinel. He is also a co-contributor to Waq al-Waq, a blog that offers nuanced analyses of Yemen’s history and political affairs.
Rogers: As a Fulbright Fellow you spent your time in Yemen and were able to see firsthand how severe water scarcity engages existing issues, such as a weak central government and rising population growth, to contribute to instability and violence. Then you returned and co-authored this great piece in Foreign Policy back in February aptly titled “The Wells Run Dry.” I’m curious – how have you seen the situation in Yemen change since you published this article?
Johnsen: I actually just returned from Yemen about two and half weeks ago where I spent about three and half weeks in the country and I was able to talk to a number of people in different sectors of society there. And one of the things that was really interesting to me is that government control has sort of – began to recede further and further back into urban areas. But while it’s going back into urban areas the government has done a fairly good job in places like Sana’a consolidating and centralizing some of its control over the city that was absent I would say when I was there as a Fulbright Fellow in 2003 and 2004 or even when I was there in 2005 or 2006. But at the same time that the government has been able to make its presence more acutely formed in those areas – it’s also – there’s been a sense of rising tensions that I think this – the water issue, the increasingly bad financial straits that the government finds itself in, as well as the different security threats that it’s facing across the map, have all kind of contributed to this rising tension that I think is felt by many, many people there who were previously much more optimistic than they are now.
Rogers: You put a lot of emphasis on how water scarcity is combining with declines in oil reserves to create this perfect storm where the government no longer has the money to, in a way, buy itself out of trouble. But how has the Yemeni government used its oil revenues in the past to combat water scarcity –if at all?
Johnsen: Well mostly what the Yemeni government – the thing you have to understand is that the Yemeni government is essentially a patronage-based system. And so President Saleh’s regime controls a lot of the money that comes in through the government and then they’re able to use that to sort of play off different opposition groups against one another. President Saleh often refers to the style of governing in Yemen as dancing on the heads of snakes – which is a very apt way to put it – but it’s a very dangerous way to govern as well. So whenever one group gets too strong the government has traditionally supported whoever is in opposition to that group against them as a way of sort of maintaining some sort of balance throughout the country. What we’ve seen in regards to water is that as the supplies continue to decrease – and there’s a very good report that’s just out from the Carnegie Endowment by Christopher Boucek [Yemen: Avoiding a Downward Spiral] that takes a large sort of big picture look at Yemen dealing with water, oil, as well as other security crises and he discusses how many of the wells are even getting down into the fossil water that isn’t being replenished – and so what we’ve seen the government do is sort of step in at different times. The Yemeni government has pretty heavy subsidies on things like diesel pumps which then many Yemeni farmers are able to use the reduced price in diesel to pump water out. And they pump this – there’s very little oversight as to who’s pumping out, when they’re pumping out, how much they’re pumping out. And then farmers use the water and they over-irrigate – particularly qat plants. Qat is a very big cash crop within Yemen. So all of these different crises are sort of interrelated here.
Rogers: In what ways are you seeing rogue groups in Yemen use this extreme resource scarcity to their advantage?
Johnsen: Well it’s one of those things I think that’s affecting a lot of – a lot of different groups. So most recently we saw very severe water crisis in Aden just a couple of weeks ago. Ta’izz is an area that’s been particularly hard hit by this. What it is is it’s almost – it’s eroding the legitimacy of the government. So the government is increasingly unable to provide services to many of its citizens. So when the water is not turned on in places like Ta’izz or places like Aden or in the southern governorate of Abyan which has been a hotbed of rising calls for secession recently, then these individuals are turning to neighborhood sheikhs or tribal leaders who are able to purchase water from private companies and then provide the service that the government is just at this point either incapable or unwilling of providing. And you’ve also seen in some of the northern governorates issues of who has rights over water wells, sparking and helping to exacerbate some of – some of the tribal conflicts. So it’s not an issue I don’t think of one group really using this to take advantage or to use it as a weapon against another group as much as it is something that – the scarcity of water is really eroding the loyalty of the government as well as exacerbating other crises within the state.
Rogers: Well you touched on this briefly before, but how does the central government view its role in resource issues broadly – in coming up with new water supplies, improving agriculture, etc.? And are there regional differences that are playing into the bigger picture of its instability?
Johnsen: Right at the moment every region within Yemen is affected. I mean they’re affected in different ways at different times – if that makes sense. So at times the crisis will be more severe in Aden or in Ta’izz than it will be in Sana’a or Hudaydah. But every part of the country is affected by the shortage of water. There’s isn’t – at least to the best of my knowledge – there isn’t one part of the country that’s sort of a wash in all sorts of fresh water that they have access to. The Yemeni government as far as planning goes – the Yemeni government has really been negligent in planning for not only what happens when oil runs out within the state, but also what to do when water runs out. There was a donors conference in 2006 in London and on the eve of the conference the Yemeni government published a number of different plans and different papers about what it is they anticipated doing in the future. But many of these proposals, plans, papers that they put forward were really best case scenarios whereby if say one step of the plan that was put forward failed then the entire plan would come collapsing down. And I think that there’s been an increased acknowledgment both within regional governments – say like Saudi Arabia and the other GCC countries – that Yemen’s future is increasingly in danger – as well as among Western and European powers like the United Kingdom and the United States – that what’s going on in Yemen – it won’t be – if the Yemen state were to fail it wouldn’t simply implode and the problems of Yemen stay within the borders of what we now know is Yemen. That very easily these problems would expand and go beyond those borders.
Rogers: What do you see happening next in Yemen?
Johnsen: Well I think this is the question that’s really sort of confounded everybody at the moment –what does the future of Yemen look like? Most of the time what gets talked about is that Yemen is going to look something like Somalia or it’s going to look something like Afghanistan. President Saleh recently was quoted as saying that when Yemen breaks apart – he was saying this in reference to the calls for secession from the south – he said that when Yemen breaks apart it isn’t going to break up into two parts such as it was prior to unification in 1990. And I tend to agree with him and I would – my best guess is that Yemen isn’t going to look like what Somalia looks like. That it’s going to fall apart in a much different way. I think – I mean it’s really difficult to predict exactly what it is that it’s going to look like. But certainly the water issue, the lack of oil, all of the problems that were outlined in the Foreign Policy piece – you know the great illiteracy, the crumbling infrastructure, the inability of the government to provide basic services to many of its people – these are all going to exacerbate all of the security crises that we’re seeing at the moment. The civil war in the north, the threat of secession from the south, as well as opening up a great deal of space for groups like al Qaeda to operate. And al Qaeda right now essentially has a safe haven in the Marib, al-Jawf and Shabwa regions where the government has little if any control and is increasingly unable to affect any change whatsoever in those regions.
Rogers: Well sort of piggybacking on this question: We’ve seen that water scarcity and drought are endemic issues in a lot of countries – Mexico, Pakistan, Iraq. So could we see water engage issues in these countries the same way we’ve seen it engage issues in Yemen? I guess what I’m asking is that when it comes to water scarcity and drought, is there another Yemen out there?
Johnsen: Well I might not be the best person to ask for that because Yemen is really the only country I can speak of with any degree of expertise. But I would add that just as sort of these many crises that we’ve just touched on here in our conversation will kind of be reaching the tipping point so to speak – that Yemen will also be undergoing sort of a generational change in leadership. You’ve already seen this in the tribal structure with the death of Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar in December of 2007 and you’re going to start to see this with President Saleh who’s getting toward the end of his term and is getting up there in years as well. So all of these – I don’t see there – at least in Yemen – I don’t see there being anything along the lines of water wars. What I see the role of say water within the wars in Yemen is something that increases and as we said exacerbates and makes all of these crises much more acute than they would have otherwise been.