F.S.O. Safer: Risks to Yemen - Water
Yemen is already one of the world's most water deprived countries. An oil spill will only make it worse.
[NOTE: The risks that the F.S.O. Safer poses can broadly be categorised into (i) Yemen’s humanitarian situation, (ii) general environmental, (iii) world trade, and (iv) the wider region.
This series of posts will be based on a wide variety of publicly available sources. However, a special shout out - in terms of the structure and content it provides - is the Greenpeace briefing paper “FSO Safer: A Shipwreck In Slow Motion”, which in turn draws a lot on an article in Nature by Benjamin Q. Huynh et al called “Public health impacts of an imminent Red Sea oil spill.”]
Thanks for reading Make Safer Better! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Current water usage
Even without the war and instability, Yemen, with its semi-arid terrain and lack of a permanent river, already faces challenges when it comes to managing and developing its watersources for a population of over 30 million people.
Here are some 2017 estimates from the CIA World Factbook on Yemen’s annual water usage:
Total water withdrawal: 3.565 billion cubic metres
Municipal 0.265 billion cubic metres
Industrial 0.065 billion cubic metres
Agricultural 3.235 billion cubic metres
Total renewable water sources
2.1 billion cubic metres
For comparison purposes, while neighbouring Oman is obviously a completely different country to Yemen, it is illustrative that for a population one-sixth the size of Yemen’s, its total water withdrawal of 1.872 billion cubic metres is a little over half that of Yemen.
Even more disconcerting for Yemen is that it has, on average, a shortfall of 1.465 billion cubic metres per year between its total water usage and renewable water sources, which means that once any non-renewable reserves are gone, it will need to either commercially import that equivalent water or receive it as aid. (Oman’s total renewable water sources are 1.4 billion out of 1.872 billion cubic metres.)
The challenges of the current water situation in Yemen
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) summarised in June 2022:
An estimated “17.8 million people lack access to safe water and adequate sanitation services in Yemen”.
Less than 30% of Yemeni’s population have access to the water supply system, requiring millions to “walk for miles to fetch water”.
Lack of access to clean water has lead to some “major health outbreaks, including cholera and acute watery diarrhea that started in October 2016, leading to the country’s worst cholera outbreak in modern history (2.5 million cases reported, and more than 4,000 people have died in the Yemen cholera outbreak)”.
Interestingly, the cultivation of qat (a cash crop) consumes “more than 40% of Yemen’s total renewable water resources and 32% of all groundwater withdrawals. The rate of groundwater overdraft is currently much higher (twice) than the recharge rate, and is increasing, bringing depletion of water reserves, inequity, and shortages”.
Also noted elsewhere, “Yemen’s freshwater share per capita is only 74 cubic meters — drastically below what is considered to be the “water poverty line” of 1,000 cubic meters per capita”.
Current sources of water in Yemen
Its water is currently derived from and managed as follows:
Surface water - Making up about 25% of Yemen’s water, this is an important source of water for irrigation and consists of springs as well as diverted water from ephemeral rivers or wadis (mostly dry throughout the year except for when there are seasonal floods from rainfall) using the practice of spate irrigation.
As noted by The Guardian, rainfall varies across the country:
The eastern Rub al-Khali desert and the southern long, coastal areas get very little rainfall.
The western highlands, at over 3,600 metres above sea level, are the recipients during summer months of the highest rainfall in all of the Arabian peninsula courtesy of a monsoon from the south-west. Annual totals are between 750 to 1,000mm, apparently about the same as many parts of the UK.
Lowland coastal and desert areas get below 100mm per year.
Groundwater - Renewable groundwater makes up nearly 40% of the water supply and is derived from the infiltration of water into the soil from the type of rainfall and flooding described above. Water is accessed by drilling of boreholes which have been getting deeper and deeper due to diminishing returns, often undertaken with little knowledge of conditions below; there is potential for the water supply to be polluted.
Rainwater harvesting - Various projects have been rolled out in recent years funded by international aid organisations to allow rainwater to be collected in reservoirs or cisterns for local usage, including Oxfam, the EU and the World Bank; the latter funded the construction of “1,279 public reservoirs and 30,686 household rainwater harvesting cisterns, supplying nearly 900,000 cubic meters of water”.
Pipes - Household access to water from piping is limited mainly to cities and even then can be accessible only a few hours a day every few days. Initiatives have been started to increase the supply of water via pipes to not only improve accessibility but also reduce unhygienic conditions due to raw sewage exposure to the public.
Water tanker trucks - These are an expensive source of water for local communities, delivering water from privately owned reservoirs to where piped water is not available. In 2018, prices being charged to local people were reportedly 16 times higher than its cost. Alternatives are for local people, mainly women and young girls, to walk for many hours to fetch water; often the water is dirty or not in sufficient quantities, and this also means that the time and effort it takes to do all this means there is less time for other activities such as education.
Desalination plants - While the region is home to various desalination plants further north in the Red Sea, data on the condition of existing known desalination plants within Yemen and their existing capabilities is less clear:
Mocha - Located about 170km south of Hodeidah and west of the besieged city of Taiz, the Mocha desalination plant was privately built in 2014, but then bombed in 2016 by it looks to be the Saudi-led coalition; a 2020 World Bank report refers to it as still being destroyed, but mentions a Mocha Power Station with desalination units now having been repaired, although the Power Station was not fully operational at the time of the report.
Aden - The ailing 35+ year-old Al-Haswah Electricity Station has thermal desalination capabilities through the heating of seawater, but not all units seem to be operating.
Salif - In the Hodeidah region just north of where the Safer is moored is located a desalination plant, however the aforementioned 2020 World Bank report indicates this is now destroyed, even though it was operational back in 2017.
The major risks directly associated with an oil spill from the Safer arise from:
Fuel import disruptions due to port closures:
With the majority of the population not connected to piped water, there is a huge reliance on water trucks to deliver water around the country, which relies on fuel, many water pumps used to extract water from underground are powered by fuel, and many water and waste treatment centres also rely on fuel to operate.
Huynh et al anticipate “water access in Yemen to be severely disrupted by fuel shortages if the spill closes ports; during the full port closures in November 2017 [during the blockade by the Saudi-coalition after Houthi attacks on Riyadh], 8 million people in Yemen lost access to running water since accessing water typically depends on fuel-powered pumps or water trucks”.
Operations of desalination plants
These often not only rely on fuel for their operations but will face huge challenges to convert oil-polluted water into useable freshwater.
While these statistics are for the Red Sea region rather than just Yemen, Huynh et al estimate that a spill will “threaten clean-water supply, equivalent to the daily use of an estimated 1.0–1.9 million people through potential contamination of desalination plants. In the Red Sea region, we estimate potential disruption of desalination plants responsible for a total of 77,000 m3 d–1 of clean water in the summer and 362,000 m3 d–1 in the winter.”
Increased conflict over scarce water resources
While this isn’t the place to go deep into the past and current failures of water management in Yemen (a mix of mismanagement and misguided government policies), it has lead - coupled with factors such as the war, its natural geography, population growth and movement, and climate change - to conflict between tribal groups.
According to the Yemen Policy Centre:
“In 2010, the Yemeni government estimated that some 4,000 people die each year in tribal disputes over land and water. In one extreme example, two prominent tribes in the al-Jawf governorate fought over a well on their territorial border for nearly three decades.”
They also point out that due to a breakdown in law and order, disputes over access to water has lead to various groups resorting to extra-judicial means to resolve them in their favour.
These groups have then, in turn, used water as a weapon “either to punish the local population or to recruit new fighters”, including “blocking humanitarian aid organizations from distributing it”.
Yemen’s precarious water situation - which has been an issue for decades - will only be made worse if the Safer spills its oil cargo and blocks off imports of vital fuel to power water capture and distribution (and the concomitant impacts to sanitation, hygiene and health), pollutes seawater used for potential desalination, and also impedes the delivery of other much needed aid required as a result of Yemen’s water scarcity crisis.
While this post discusses Water, it is closely related to sanitation and hygiene, as a lack of clean water can lead to a deterioration on those other elements; they are collectively known as Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH).
Defined as “long-term average water availability for a country measured in cubic meters per year of precipitation, recharged ground water, and surface inflows from surrounding countries. Total renewable water resources provides the water total available to a country but does not include water resource totals that have been reserved for upstream or downstream countries through international agreements.”