July 26, 2011

In Yemen, Water, Fuel and Food Prices Rise as Political Crisis Worsens

Yemen’s political crisis seems to be worsening. On Sunday, New York Times Magazine writer Robert
Worth’s recent account was simply titled “Yemen
on the Brink of Hell.
” Meanwhile, The
Wall Street Journal
reported earlier this month that “Yemen
[has] been rendered ungovernable

While Yemen’s embattled President Saleh continues to hold
onto power, many Yemenis continue to struggle in the face of perennial
challenges that have beleaguered this Middle East nation. In particular,
Worth’s story illustrates how Yemen’s resource challenges are exacerbating the
situation for many struggling to live day to day.  “For those not on the payroll, life has
gotten measurably worse since the uprising began at the start of the year, with
food prices rising fast and water and cooking gas increasingly scarce
Worth wrote. “If
these trends continue, the appeal of hard-line Islamists or other extremists
may grow
, upsetting all calculations about the loyalty of Yemen’s military
or its tribes.” 

The Yemeni government has had a poor track record with managing
its resource challenges in a sustainable way. One need only look to the way in
which the government has dealt with the state’s acute water crisis to see how
vulnerable its resource management practices are: the government has used its
oil revenue to subsidize otherwise expensive water extraction practices without
addressing the need to manage its water resources better, for example, through
conservation practices. But the country’s oil wells are running dry – with some experts predicting that the
country could run out of exportable oil by 2017
– leaving the government
without the wherewithal to continue to buy its way out of trouble.

As Worth noted, the country’s political turmoil has already upended water,
fuel and food prices. “Since Yemen’s political crisis, tribal attacks and other
disruptions have interrupted the nation’s fuel supplies, sending
the cost of bread up 60 percent and the price of trucked water up a disastrous
400 percent
,” The Daily Beast reported.
The “prices
of some foodstuffs such as wheat, flour, sugar, yogurt, milk and dairy products
rose at rates ranging between 40-60%, while prices of drinking water by
202%...the prices of petroleum products like gasoline and diesel has reached
unreasonable levels, where the percentage rise 900%
,” a recent report from the
Yemen-based Studies and Economic Media Center found.

With most Yemeni
day laborers already unable to afford water
and other food commodities, it
is not difficult to see how water scarcity and other challenges such as rising
food prices could contribute to continued calls for regime change – or make
hard-line Islamists or other extremists more palatable political partners. In
2009, I spoke with Gregory Johnsen, a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern studies
at Princeton University and a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen, who painted a
clearer picture of how these dynamics could play out:

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.    

It is increasingly clear that long-term political stability
in Yemen is inextricably linked to how well the country can navigate its
resource challenges. “I
think we will have to go through a hell to reach our future
,” Robert Worth's Yemeni friend told him. Indeed, Yemen’s resource challenges will likely get
worse before they get better. Unconfirmed reports yesterday said that the government
announced it would end its longtime fuel subsidies
, largely, experts
suggest, because the government is running out of money. (Thanks to former CNAS intern John Dana Stuster
for the lead on this developing story.)  Consequently, fuel prices are likely to
continue to rise sharply, which bodes poorly for the many Yemenis already
struggling to make ends meet.

The bottom line: whatever your analytical scope is
for assessing Yemen’s political crisis, remember to consider Yemen’s resource
challenges. You would be at pains to try to ignore them.  

Photo: A Yemeni fuel pump near Marib. Courtesy of flickr user localsurfer.