A Systems Approach to Yemen’s Critical Environmental Issues

9 August 2010

More than just a resource, water is the essential force for life.  And in an arid region such as the Middle East, its scarcity forces water and those places with abundant water to take on near-mythical properties.  Called Felix Arabia or Happy Arabia by the Romans, Yemen was long the breadbasket of Arabia, renowned for lush green mountains and abundant agricultural output.

Fast-forward 2000 years and a variety of environmental, social, and political issues strain the water resources of this country—there isn’t enough precipitation, enough surface water, or enough groundwater.  Fossil reservoirs are becoming quickly depleted, with some scientists measuring groundwater depletion rates in the Sana’a basin of 5-6 meters per year. And this demand will not decrease; with a population growth rate of over 3% for the country and about 5.5% in Sana’a, the need for water will increase across the residential, commercial, and especially agricultural sectors.

Add to this the energy demands of a growing population eager to develop a higher standard of living, and the challenges and limitations becomes more complex still.

The entire Yemeni power grid has an electrical generation capacity of only 900MW, enough electricity to run only 550,000 average houses in the American Mountain West region**.  Meanwhile, only 30-40% of the population is grid connected and of those with grid connections, the majority encounter frequent—even daily—power outages.  Assuming that 40% of the population is connected, the Yemeni power grid has enough electricity to provide only 4.2MWhr of electricity to each household every year—less than half of that used in any region of the United States.  And as this limited capacity must meet not only residential needs, but also the demands of the commercial, agricultural, and industrial sectors, the grid is already severely strained.

These anecdotes illustrate the critical environmental challenges faced by Yemen–challenges that collectively are likely to threaten the security and stability of Yemen within the next decade. Moreover, these interrelated challenges illustrate that all environmental issues must be tackled in a systems framework. It is not enough to consider one problem in isolation.  As the issues themselves are highly interconnected and interdependent, the multiple and varied effects of any given project, model, or solution must be considered.  Only by doing so can academia produce the applicable, nuanced research needed to improve Yemen’s environmental future.

As evidenced by numerous conversations with experts in engineering, water, renewable energy, resource management, policy, and environmental geography, the key environmental challenges facing Yemen relate primarily to water, energy, and agriculture, as well as pollution, climate change, and ecosystem management and conservation.  Some considerable work is being done by experts in Yemen in these areas; however, university faculty are constrained by limited resources.  Without exception, all experts interviewed have expressed the need for applied research that addresses these environmental challenges, yet is sensitive to the political, cultural, and social realities of present-day Yemen.

  • Water:  With some models predicting Sana’a will run out of water within 20 years at most, water is the most pressing of Yemen’s environmental needs.  Key areas for research include: groundwater monitoring and health, water efficiency and limiting water use (especially in the agricultural sector), harvesting new water, adaptation to water scarcity, desalination, and applying traditional water management models.
    • Specific research needs and topics include:  data collection; monitoring and modeling of water resources; local climate change modeling to predict future water availability; pollution monitoring and mitigation; collection of best practices for water in arid environments; urban and agricultural management and use practices; traditional water management and storage methods; water scarcity adaptation; increasing energy production so as to not increase the sector’s water demand; desalination; transparency in the water sector; water quality standards; and the likely outcome and difficulties associated with water allotment conflicts; saltwater intrusion; and rainwater harvesting.
  • Energy:  With a limited electricity supply dependent upon natural gas and oil for production and a highly decentralized population, sustainably electrifying the grid will be a difficult challenge.  Key areas for research include:  rural electrification, application of renewable energies, the environmental impact of fossil fuels, minimizing water use by the energy sector, and energy use in the built environment.
    • Specific research needs and topics include:  data collection and mapping; energy use and supply monitoring and modeling; renewable potential of Yemen; application of renewable energy technologies to agriculture and small industry; developing a decentralized energy grid; linking water collection and desalination technologies to renewable energies; applying renewable technologies to urban environments; exploitation of geothermal energy; traditional building technologies to minimize residential energy use; urban planning; reducing energy losses to grid; transparency in the fossil fuel sectors (especially related to environmental impacts); technology transfer of best environmental technologies for drilling and transport; pollution caused by electricity production and transportation; impact of exhaust gas on localized climate changes and public health; and collection of best practices from the fossil fuel sector.
  • Agriculture:  Responsible for 90% of Yemen’s annual freshwater use, agricultural problems are highly interrelated with the country’s water and pollution issues.  Key areas for research include: water monitoring, pollution, and management; alternative crops, technologies, and techniques that minimize water and chemical use in agriculture; and food production to meet the needs of a growing population.
    • Specific research needs and topics include:  improved agricultural data; monitoring of water use in agriculture; adopting cost-effective new practices and crops to minimize water use; management of wells and water for agriculture; environmental impact of insecticides, fertilizers, and other agricultural chemicals; the real water use and environmental impact and costs of qat; deforestation for agricultural needs; desertification; application of traditional water management practices; cash crops to make small agriculture cost effective; application of renewable energy technologies to agricultural needs such as water harvesting, sills, and pumps; intensive farming to increase food production; and local climate change modeling to predict changes in agriculture seasons.

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2 Responses to “A Systems Approach to Yemen’s Critical Environmental Issues”

  1. Dr TChin October 17, 2010 at 12:36 AM #

    Interesting post and good reading. Who are the major organizations providing funding to the water research at the moment ? Which organization are you linked to ?

    • lmarburger October 18, 2010 at 10:07 AM #

      The Federation of American Scientists is an independent, non-profit NGO. Our trip was funded by the Richard Lounsbery Foundation, which provides seed money for science partnerships and exchanges, among other activities. Other funders of water research in Yemen include a few European governments (including the Dutch and German governments) but there is no comprehensive strategy, funding source, or priority list for water research in Yemen. This is an urgent need that needs to be addressed.

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