Yemen faces population-resources crisis

Posted: 20 March 2008

Yemen's painful struggle to build a modern state may be overwhelmed by rampant population growth, dwindling resources, corruption and internal conflicts, writes Alistair Lyon in a recent Reuter dispatch.

He quotes Ramon Scoble, a water expert from New Zealand working in Yemen as saying: "I don't believe there is another nation in the world...that is this close to a population-cum-resources catastrophe."

Alistair Lyon points to Yemen's internal conflicts and its strategic position perched on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, vital oil transport routes from the Gulf to Europe, with thousands of refugees from Somalia and Ethiopia washed up on its shores every year.

Looming over these conflicts, he says, is an economic crisis already fostering unrest and threatening to propel Yemen backwards.

"Unless there is an economic reprieve for Yemen during the next three years or so, the challenge is much bigger than the Houthis or so-called (southern) secessionists," Abdul-Karim al-Iryani, a veteran politician and adviser to President Ali Abdullah Saleh, told Reuters.

"Yemen has very meagre resources, a very high population growth rate of over three per cent, and difficult terrain so that development requires huge resources. That's our hard luck."

Water shortage

The population has doubled to 22 million since Saleh took power in the former north Yemen in 1978. It could gallop to 40 million in the next 20 years unless aggressively reined in.

"The catastrophe is looming faster than anyone can imagine," said Scoble, consultant to Germany's GTZ development agency. He said Yemen had enough rainfall for only about 2 million people.

According to the government, 19 of Yemen's 21 aquifers are in negative balance, with more water extracted than replenished. Most goes to irrigate qat, a mild narcotic widely used in Yemen.

Oil, the economy's mainstay, is depleting fast despite exploration to reverse the trend. Output is officially projected at 300,000 barrels per day this year, from 320,000 in 2007.

The decline makes it harder for the government to sustain costly fuel subsidies that soak up $1 billion a year, or about a third of oil revenue. But their removal could spark violent unrest among Yemenis already hard hit by rising food prices.

Source: Reuters report February 22, 2008