another dan­ger PLAGUES war-torn Ye­men: Thirst

Strife wors­ens wa­ter short­age in chron­i­cally dry coun­try

The Washington Post - - THE WORLD - BY ALI AL- MU­JA­HED AND HUGH NAY­LOR hugh.nay­[email protected]­post.com Nay­lor re­ported from Beirut.

SANAA, YE­MEN — For months, cit­i­zens of this war-torn coun­try have been ter­ror­ized by bomb ex­plo­sions and mor­tar at­tacks. Now another threat is grow­ing, which could be just as deadly.

Yemenis are run­ning out of wa­ter.

This poor Ara­bian Penin­sula coun­try has faced a se­vere scarcity of wa­ter for decades. But four months of fight­ing have dra­mat­i­cally wors­ened the sit­u­a­tion, with at­tacks de­stroy­ing wa­ter pipes, stor­age tanks and pump­ing fa­cil­i­ties.

The num­ber of Yemenis who lack ac­cess to drink­ing wa­ter has al­most dou­bled since the war be­gan, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions and aid agen­cies. Now, they say, more than 20 mil­lion peo­ple — about 80 per­cent of Ye­men’s pop­u­la­tion — strug­gle to find enough wa­ter to quench their thirst and bathe.

Dis­eases such as malaria are spread­ing, killing hun­dreds of peo­ple, be­cause so many res­i­dents are forced to use im­prop­erly stored and un­san­i­tary wa­ter, health ex­perts say. The cri­sis is com­pound­ing a hu­man­i­tar­ian emer­gency that al­ready has prompted U.N. of­fi­cials and aid work­ers to warn of famine.

If the short­ages aren’t al­le­vi­ated soon, there could be large-scale epi­demics and many more deaths, said Ahmed Shadoul, the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion’s head of mis­sion in Ye­men.

“We ex­pect a lot of peo­ple to die if the wa­ter sit­u­a­tion re­mains un­changed,” Shadoul said.

Many Yemenis are so des­per­ate for wa­ter that they bathe with a damp cloth. Dur­ing storms, peo­ple crowd the streets to catch rain in buck­ets.

Be­ing bald has be­come more pop­u­lar, but not as a fash­ion state­ment. “Peo­ple are shav­ing their heads be­cause they don’t have enough wa­ter to wash their hair,” said Mubarak Salmeen, 58, who lives in Aden with his wife and five chil­dren.

This coun­try has long ex­pe­ri­enced wa­ter short­ages be­cause of rapid pop­u­la­tion growth, a dry cli­mate and gov­ern­ment mis­man­age­ment of the wa­ter sys­tem.

Not help­ing the prob­lem is a na­tional ob­ses­sion with a drug called khat. Huge amounts of pre­cious ground­wa­ter have been di­verted to cul­ti­vate the plant, the leaves of which are chewed by mil­lions of Yemenis for its stim­u­lant ef­fect.

In­re­cent months, an es­ca­la­tion in fight­ing has led to un­prece­dented dis­rup­tions in ac­cess­ing wa­ter.

Air raids, shelling and ground as­saults have de­stroyed wa­ter in­fra­struc­ture. In the south­ern port city of Aden, hometo roughly a mil­lion peo­ple, most taps have run dry.

“The wa­ter sit­u­a­tion is a dis­as­ter,” said Na­jib Mo­hammed Ahmed, di­rec­tor of Aden’s wa­ter and san­i­ta­tion au­thor­ity.

The war pits Shi­ite rebels known as Houthis against sup­port­ers of Pres­i­dent Abed Rabbo Man­sour Hadi, whose gov­ern­ment was top­pled in Fe­bru­ary. A Saudi-led coali­tion launched a bomb­ing cam­paign against the in­sur­gents the fol­low­ing month. Saudi Ara­bia main­tains that the rebels are a threat be­cause they re­ceive sup­port from Iran, its re­gional foe.

The wa­ter prob­lems go be­yond the de­struc­tion of in­fra­struc­ture. Power plants and elec­tric­ity lines have been dam­aged in the fight­ing, ham­per­ing mu­nic­i­pal author­i­ties’ abil­ity to pump wa­ter to res­i­dents. Diesel fuel for backup gen­er­a­tors, which could be used to power the pumps, has be­come scarce be­cause of the dif­fi­cul­ties of trans­port­ing it through war zones. In ad­di­tion, U.N. of­fi­cials and aid work­ers say an air and naval block­ade es­tab­lished by the Saudi-led coali­tion is se­verely re­strict­ing im­ports.

Saudi of­fi­cials deny they have choked off sup­plies of energy, say­ing that ships and air­craft are al­lowed to bring food and fuel into Ye­men af­ter un­der­go­ing in­spec­tions for il­licit arms.

A life-chang­ing short­age

The lack of wa­ter has trans­formed many Yemenis’ lives.

“It used to be that we would run for shel­ter when it rained. Now, if there’s rain, we all run out­side with buck­ets,” said Hus­sein bin Mo­hammed, 38, a phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal sales­man from the south­ern city of Taiz.

The wors­en­ing short­ages have sharply driven up the price of wa­ter in a coun­try where the av­er­age res­i­dent earns $122 a month.

Fuad Ab­dul­rah­man Ali, 53, an an­tiques sales­man from Sanaa, said that prices have more than quadru­pled for wa­ter trucked in from wells in sur­round­ing vil­lages.

“I never thought we’d be at the point of think­ing about whether we can af­ford wa­ter,” said Ali, a fa­ther of three.

The short­ages are so in­tense that wild­cat drillers are bor­ing wells and ex­tract­ing un­treated ground­wa­ter that they sell to con­sumers, health ex­perts say. Mean­while, res­i­dents are stor­ing wa­ter for drink­ing and cook­ing in un­cov­ered con­tain­ers that be­come breed­ing grounds for mosquitoes that trans­mit malaria and dengue fever, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions and aid agen­cies. In re­cent weeks, those or­ga­ni­za­tions have iden­ti­fied at least 8,000 sus­pected cases of those dis­eases, far more than the usual num­ber.

“These con­tain­ers at peo­ple’s homes have be­come a pri­mary rea­son for the pro­lif­er­a­tion of mosquitoes that is caus­ing large out­breaks of these dis­eases,” said Alkhader Laswar, the Aden di­rec­tor for Ye­men’s Health Min­istry. In his city, he said, malaria and dengue fever have killed sev­eral hun­dred peo­ple.

Cholera and other wa­ter­borne dis­eases are also likely to spread as peo­ple use con­tam­i­nated wa­ter.

The United Na­tions says that 120,000 chil­dren could die if the lack of ac­cess to clean wa­ter, suf­fi­cient food and ad­e­quate health care per­sists. The fight­ing has forced many hos­pi­tals and med­i­cal clin­ics to close.

So far, about 3,500 peo­ple have been killed in the at­tacks.

“Chil­dren are dy­ing of the cur­rent health con­di­tions in the coun­try much more so than be­fore,” said Julien Harneis, the Ye­men rep­re­sen­ta­tive for UNICEF.

More than a mil­lion Yemenis have been dis­placed by the fight­ing. Many have sought refuge in ru­ral ar­eas with few wells and springs. The in­ten­si­fy­ing com­pe­ti­tion for wa­ter could cre­ate more con­flicts.

“Now you have wells in these ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties that are sup­ply­ing wa­ter to 1,700 peo­ple in­stead of just 700,” said Mo­hammed Sham­san, an ad­viser to the Min­istry of Wa­ter and En­vi­ron­ment. “This is fright­en­ing.”

Ahmed al-Sanna has cer­tainly seen a rise in de­mand for the wa­ter in his vil­lage, lo­cated in a sparsely pop­u­lated area south of Taiz. Be­fore the war, a trip to a lo­cal well would take less than half an hour. Now, the 46-yearold farmer said, the lines for wa­ter are so long that he has to wait seven hours to fill the con­tain­ers that are hauled back home by the fam­ily’s don­key.

“The lines are be­com­ing too long,” Sanna said. “We don’t know what we’re go­ing to do.”

SALEH AL-OBEIDI/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IM­AGES

YAHYA ARHAB/EURO­PEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

TOP: A woman car­ries a plas­tic con­tainer filled with wa­ter in the south­ern port city of Aden, Ye­men. ABOVE: Peo­ple fill buck­ets with wa­ter from a do­nated source in the cap­i­tal, Sanaa. The war has dam­aged Ye­men’s fa­cil­i­ties for pump­ing and dis­tribut­ing...

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