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Yemen’s fuel and water crisis is putting lives at risk

Posted by Chad Anderson Resilience Programme Policy Advisor

25th Jun 2014

Families gather to collect water at Ahmed Ajar's well. Credit: Oxfam/Chad Anderson

As fuel prices soar people in Yemen are struggling to access water, even water unsafe for drinking. The stability of the country and the welfare of its people is at stake. Chad Anderson describes the situation on the ground and introduces our new Yemen Crisis briefing.

I met the Ajar family in the small village of Al Hoda'an, last month, close to the Saudi border in the desert-like north western governorate of Hajjah.  As a family with a small farm and irrigation well, they are considered very lucky.

Ahmed, and other farmers like him, will not be able to afford the fuel they need to pump water from their wells much longer"My wife and I dug this well 30 years ago," Ahmed Ajar, now 55-years-old, proudly explained as he turned on his generator to pump water up from the low water table. But Ahmed, and other farmers like him, will not be able to afford the fuel they need to pump water from their wells much longer as prices skyrocket in Yemen.

Oil is a big industry here in Yemen, and the government relies on it for more than 50% of its revenue. This revenue has, in the past, allowed the government to operate one of the lowest pump prices and one of the highest fuel subsidies in the world, equal to about 30% of the state's entire income.

But the government says it can no longer afford to import fuel while maintaining the subsidy. This has led to numerous fuel shortages and a flourishing black market, which together have pushed the price of diesel up by as much as 400%, far out of reach of most Yemenis.

Ahmed Anjar's well extracts ater from many metres below groud level. Credit: Chad Anderson/OxfamThis is becoming a very dangerous situation for communities like Al Hoda'an. Since the fuel crisis hit, Ahmed's generator has become a lifeline to his whole village, cut off from clean public water sources as local authorities can no longer afford to fuel their water pumping generators. Spluttering into life, the generator sent a rumbling sound through dry earth and shortly after I saw children hurrying toward us with their donkeys to fetch water.

"I can't turn families away," said Ahmed. "I know everyone in my village and they are thirsty, but I can't afford to pump water for both the village and my crops."

Standing at Ahmed's irrigation well, I tried to picture myself in his shoes as I watched families who once had access to government clean water schemes, now forced to use an open irrigation well, placing themselves at risk of illness and disease. But still, I wouldn't turn them away either.

And it is not just access to water that is affected. Ahmed looked concerned as he told me that the cost to rent a tractor has doubled since last year and many farmers cannot afford to plough their fields in preparation for planting. With crops not being planted, and fields not being irrigated, the casual labour associated with these activities - a lifeline for many families - has dried up too. 

This situation is spelling catastrophe for communities who do not have access to any health care services at all. Ibrahim Yousif, who lives the Marqed village, in the neighbouring governorate of Al Hodeidah explained how all 1,200 households in his village are isolated from basic services.

"Malaria is spreading and everyone has diarrhoea, but if we need to be hospitalised it is literally a disaster for us"Ibrahim described how the consumption of unsafe water is impacting on him and his neighbours. "Malaria is spreading and everyone has diarrhoea, but if we need to be hospitalised it is literally a disaster for us. Transportation costs have more than doubled so a trip to the hospital results in huge debt."

Already heavily in debt, many families have barely recovered from the previous fuel crisis of 2011 and simply cannot afford the cost of transport even in emergencies.

Tragically, another of Maqed's residents, Ibrahim Hassan, recently lost his one-month-old baby son, sick with diarrhoea and fever, because he couldn't afford to take him to hospital. This is the second of Ibrahim's children to have died from treatable diseases because they couldn't afford the fuel costs of getting them the urgent healthcare they needed. He lost his six-month-old in 2012, in the fallout from the last fuel crisis in Yemen.

These hardships are just a snapshot of how this crisis is risking lives for Yemen's poorest, already under incredible strain to survive amid a protracted humanitarian crisis. Unless Yemen's government and donors immediately address the fuel crisis, millions of lives and the future security of the country are at stake.

Read more

Download our briefing paper Yemen in Crisis: How Yemen can survive the fuel crisis and secure its future

Find out about our Yemen crisis response


Families gather around Ahmed Anjar's well to collect water. Credit: Chad Anderson/Oxfam
Ahmed Anjar's well extracts water from many metres below ground level.Credit: Chad Anderson/Oxfam

Blog post written by Chad Anderson

Resilience Programme Policy Advisor

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Chad Anderson