Water & Instability on the Arabian Peninsula

Water scarcity exacerbates Yemen’s already unstable governance. Thirty of the past forty years of Yemen’s history have been marked by civil conflict and instability. As Houthi rebels battle coalition forces, the country’s underlying sources of political and social instability threaten any possible settlement of the current conflict; foremost among these is the lack of access to fresh water. The average Yemeni only has access to a tenth of the UNDP’s annual water benchmark, placing them well below the water poverty line. Yemen’s immense water poverty illustrates the widespread regional water poverty levels across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the world’s “most water stressed region.” Arid conditions, low and variable rainfall and high rates of evaporation due to extreme temperatures characterize the region’s vulnerability to climate change. By 2050, the water per capita availability in the entire MENA region will be reduced by 40%, competing with rapid, further stressing water supplies.


Although a small nation like Yemen seems insignificant in terms of its impact on regional stability, its water scarcity and immense poverty are two underlying issues that are almost certain to create potential discord in the future. In addition to having one of the highest birth rates in the world, at 4.2% per year, Yemen’s population of 23 million only has, on average, access to 100m3 of water annually. Compare this to the United Nations Development Program’s water share benchmark of 1,000m3, and the average Yemeni is significantly beneath the water poverty line. Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, is still facing ongoing sectarian violence over water queues. And unlike its neighbor to the north, Saudi Arabia, there is no government or resources to construct expensive desalination plants that run off of a nearly unlimited domestic oil supply. The Yemeni government’s current collapse is likely implicated in this inability to provide basic services for its burgeoning population through its encouragement of cultivating water intensive crops. This phenomenon is reflected in its ranking as eighth in the Fragile States Index.



Despite this dismal situation, solutions are being developed to address this growing problem. Inexpensive alternatives to desalination and reverse osmosis technology are being developed, especially in Saudi Arabia, as seen with the construction of Al Khafji Solar Saline Reverse Osmosis Plant in the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology in northern Saudi Arabia. Other desalination techniques, such as electrochemical desalination microchips and Lockheed Martin’s Perforene™ filtration system for potable water, are just some of the technologies underway, and could potentially be exported to such developing, water-scarce nations as Yemen as they become further developed and affordable. Furthermore, a shift in agricultural tariffs and subsidies by the government could act as an incentive for Yemeni farmers to produce less water intensive crops, especially qat, a popular water-intensive narcotic, and practice more efficient irrigation methods.


A desalination plant near Dammam, Saudi Arabia

With rising political instability—as well as growing food and water insecurity across the entire MENA region—water insecurity could serve the political agenda of such terrorist organizations as the Islamic State and multitude of Al-Qaeda franchises. Both of these non-state actor groups impede the security of the Arabian Peninsula. According to a UNESCO report, the deprivation of basic resources creates “ripe conditions for extremists and terrorists to fill the vacuum.” The inability to access basic resources can act as a multiplier effect in weak states, a scenario that some experts attribute to provoking the Syrian War. A serious collapse in water supplies could affect migration patterns, forcing poor farmers and citizens to migrate to countries with better access to resources. And, given Yemen’s strategic location, shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden could be even more prone to piracy. Past governmental collapse and economic depression have led to market shocks in oil prices. Such political and market volatilities are bound to burden wealthier, developed nations, especially on the Arabian Peninsula, through migration and conflict, straining resources and compromising regional stability.

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Map Credit: Business Insider

As Yemen rests on the Saudi Arabia and Oman borders, mitigating this potential threat is crucial to maintaining stability across the immediate Arabian Peninsula region. Incorporating long-term environmental security measures is crucial for planning the long-term stability of the nation and fragile nations like it for all key regional stakeholders. Yemen’s water crisis illustrates the effect of water insecurity on fragile governance, state functionality and its broader implications within complex security nexuses, especially with its neighboring nations. Such a vital resource has proven itself to accelerate and exacerbate fragile political tensions and governance in a traditionally unstable nation. Given these factors, maintaining water security in developing, water scarce nations is crucial to maintaining long-term stability across not only the Arabian Peninsula, but the MENA region in the wake rapid global climate change.