Lack of water and access to basic sanitation in Yemen places a deadly new wave of cholera breaking out, with Unicef’s senior water advisor warning the worst is yet to come if the conflict there is not stopped.
The poverty-ridden country of 28 million has been plunged in war between Houthi rebels and government supporters since 2015 (Al-jazeera).
“[The] violence [has] increased the problem of safe water in terms of quality and quantity,” Sami Abubakr told WikiTribune while in England visiting family.
Abubakr wishes the Yemen he knew as a child could return. “There was good jobs, hope, peace, all happy,” says the 61-year-old leader of Unicef’s Water and Sanitation projects in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital.
So far in 2018, there have been 154,527 suspected cholera cases and 197 associated deaths reported across Yemen, according to a new report by the Yemen Emergency Operations Centre. Nearly one-third (30 percent) of cases affected children under five years old.
Spiralling cases of the infectious water-borne disease is directly linked to inadequate water resources. The country was already facing a severe shortage of drinking water, but water infrastructure has been repeatedly attacked by insurgents and services have been cut off. People drink unsafe and polluted water.
Only half of Yemen’s population has access to clean water and many of them have to travel miles to access it.
An offensive by the Saudi-led coalition to regain control of the port city of Hodeidah from the Houthi rebels increased civilian deaths by 164 percent in four months. In turn, conditions for most have worsened.
A civil war in the Arab sovereign state has been ongoing since 2015 following a crisis that can be traced to the 2011 Arab Spring. Civil unrest, political tensions and bombings are grave threats to citizens. (Read WikiTribune’s explainer on the Yemeni crisis here.)
Health facilities across Hodeidah recorded a 170 percent increase in the number of suspected cholera cases, from 497 in June to 1,342 in August, according to UK-based non-profit Save the Children in a new report. The coastal region, also a humanitarian access point, is currently a contested frontline, with the latest wave of fighting there killing 166 people a month.
But water is a more basic concern than bullets and bombs. And where there is access, it is often contaminated or polluted.
“People think it’s war that affects children but it’s really their access to basic services that affects them,” said Timothy Grieve, Unicef’s Senior Advisor on Emergency Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH).
‘This is not right’
“I am from all of Yemen,” said Abubakr, who was born in Hodeidah and now lives in Sana’a. His family migrated to the UK in 2015 when the conflict worsened. He says he is happy living in Yemen and working to improve water access there. “We care about the children,” he said.
Four children die from cholera every day in Yemen, according to Unicef.
Abubakr believes the number of those without access to water has increased to more than half of the population.
Before the conflict, every person in Yemen was entitled to 60 litres of water a day, he explained. This included water for drinking, washing and cooking. Since the conflict has totally crippled supplies, the personal limit has gone down to 20 litres daily.
For comparison, in the United States, the average family uses more than 300 gallons (1,300 litres) of water every day (United States Environmental Protection Agency). On average, in the UK the figure is 150 litres (Cambridge Water).
More than 50,000 children died of hunger and disease in 2017.
Abubakr described how women and children in Yemen’s rural areas have to walk three to five hours to fetch their daily allowance. These long and arduous journeys to contaminated water points are a direct result of the worsening conflict and targeting of water systems.
“This is not right,” he said.
International aid group Save The Children estimates that at least 130 children die every day in Yemen from extreme hunger and disease. It said more than 50,000 children died in 2017.
But the famine in Yemen, ongoing since the start of the civil war, is only sharpened by the devastation of infrastructure and facilities.
Abubakr is confident that many more water-related deaths are to come.
“Children in Yemen are suffering and suffering and will suffer in [the] future also if this war will not be stopped.”
Fighting for the ‘last drop’
Yemen’s water crisis became acute in 2015, but the situation has continued to deteriorate, said Unicef’s Timothy Grieve.
Unicef says water is as deadly as bullets and bombs in times of conflict. This is because the way water is manipulated makes it a weapon, said Grieve.
“Decades of underdevelopment, compounded by the ongoing violence and repeated attacks on civilian infrastructure have left social services barely functioning and the entire country of the verge of collapse,” Grieve told WikiTribune.
Unicef has been working in Yemen to prevent further attacks on water and sanitation infrastructure, trying to stop contamination and denial of humanitarian access. Attacks on Hodeidah have prevented some aid groups getting services and water to civilians.
“Attacks on water infrastructure jeopardize efforts to prevent further [cholera] outbreaks,” said Grieve.
What if we told you that you’ve used a weapon of war today? #WWWeek https://t.co/lRreEFZYDo
The long-running war is making the water situation in Yemen “much worse,” said Collin Douglas, a research fellow at the Center for Climate and Security, a U.S. non-profit focusing on climate affairs.
“The crisis was elevated with the political dysfunction and violence we’ve seen over the past eight to ten years,” said Douglas.
Before the conflict, Yemen’s water instability was a result of the government’s inability to adapt to population growth and govern water resources, he said, adding that long-term solutions do not seem likely in the near future.
“With the scale of the humanitarian crisis right now along with the fact that the fighting doesn’t seem to be slowing, it’s impossible to know when Yemen will see water stability again.”
“Yemen is a country that has extreme poverty, very little development, few prospects, and no voice on the international stage. Countries and people in similar situations will be the ones paying the highest price for water conflicts.”
Race against time
Time is “running out” to prevent the situation from worsening, said Maude Barlow, a water activist and co-founder of the Blue Planet Project, a global “water justice” movement.
Only 40 percent of the global population in 2030 will have access to water – IRP
The International Resource Panel, a scientific panel of experts, predicts that only 40 percent of the global population in 2030 will have access to water. Yemen will be one of the first countries to run out.
“We can fight until the last drop of water or we can just stop,” Barlow told WikiTribune.
Depriving people of access to water is a violation of international humanitarian law. Barlow was a leading figure in the successful campaign to have water recognized as a human right by the United Nations in 2010.
The situation in Yemen, along with in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, where water shortages and deprivation are widespread, are breaches of the law.
A change in how people view water is needed to combat global declining water stocks, waste and the weaponization of water in conflict, Barlow told WikiTribune from Canada during a phone call.
“There are some things in the world that should be available to all. Everyone has the right to water for life.”