A concrete tower in the desert

© ICRC

As fighting rages in Yemen, water networks have been disrupted by long and frequent power cuts – bringing more misery for the country’s people.

Damaged pumps and pipes make people turn to dirty, disease-carrying water, or leave them without anything to drink at all.

This would be a terrifying prospect in any country. But Yemen has been on the brink of a water crisis for years – if the supply dries up further, the results could be catastrophic.

A growing country, but water is scarce

Yemen is a hot, dry country with no year-round rivers. Its population grew from about 8 million people in 1980 to about 23 million in 2010. That figure is expected to reach 42 million by 2050.

Earlier this year Caroline Pellaton from the Red Cross said: “It’s predicted that by 2025 Sana’a, the capital, will have no more water. The water table is dropping every year.

“Boreholes have to be dug deeper and deeper, but there’s a limit to where you can go. So this is going to be the most crucial problem that Yemen must face in the near future.”

Water shortages put the health and livelihoods of the vast majority of Yemen’s people at risk. But they can also trigger lethal violence.

Killed for water

Yemen’s government says that in recent years more people have died due to clashes over water than the civil unrest that shook the country in 2011 and 2012.

A few years ago, it said the capital may have to be moved to the coast in order to keep the supply going.

Other factors have made the situation even worse. In Yemen, farmers and business have concentrated on growing crops to be sold abroad. This, combined with the shortage of water, means much of the country’s food has to be imported. But these imported goods can be too expensive for its poorest people.

That’s why the Red Cross has been working to improve the flow of water in Yemen since long before the recent surge in fighting.

Projects have harvested rainwater and helped farmers introduce new irrigation techniques that make better use of the country’s scarce supply.

Men carrying a role of material through a trench

Repairing an irrigation channel in southern Yemen. © ICRC

Men handling water pipes

© ICRC

Latest violence brings more problems

With every day of fighting, the pressure on that scarce supply grows. As well damage to the network, higher fuel prices caused by the conflict could make it harder to keep water pumps running.

Red Cross aid sent to Yemen in recent weeks will help make vital repairs to the water network. With supplies on the brink, this action could be just as life-saving as the operations carried out by the Red Cross emergency surgery teams.