A lack of water and access to basic sanitation services in Yemen risks a 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.
Sami Abubakr wishes to experience Yemen as he did as a child. “There was good jobs, hope, peace, all happy,” says the **-year-old who leads Water and Sanitation projects for Unicef Sana’a, Yemen’s capital.
“[The] violence [has] increased the problem of safe water in terms of quality and quantity,” he told WikiTribune while in England visiting family.
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 World Health Organization-run Yemen Emergency Operations Centre. Nearly one-third (30 percent) of cases were in children under five years old.
The rising cases of cholera, the infectious disease passed through contaminated water, are directly linked to dwindling water resources. Water infrastructure has been repeatedly attacked by insurgents and services have been cut off. People including children are being forced to drink unsafe and polluted water. Only half of Yemen’s population has access to clean water. Many of them have to travel miles to access it.
An offensive by the Saudi-led coalition to regain control of port city of Hodeidah from 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 bombing tirades 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 to it, 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, the capital. His family migrated to the UK in 2015 when the conflict worsened.
But he is happy to work on improving water access in Yemen. “We care about the children,” he said.
He believes the number of those without access to water has increased to more than half of the population. People in poverty and in Yemen’s rural areas are most affected by lack of access to water and often drink contaminated supplies. Children are most vulnerable.
Four children a day die in Yemen from cholera, according to Unicef, the United Nations’ children’s charity.
Before the conflict, every person in Yemen was entitled to 60 litres of water, he explained. This included water for drinking, washing and cooking. Since the worsening conflict has crippled supplies, everyone is limited to just 20 litres per day.
In the United States, the average family uses more than 300 gallons (1300 litres) of water every day (United States Environmental Protection Agency). On average, every person in the UK uses 150 litres of water each day (Cambridge Water).
Abubakr described how women and children in rural areas have to walk three to five hours to fetch their daily allowance of 20 litres of water. “This is not right,” he said.
These long and arduous journeys to contaminated water points are a direct result of the worsening conflict and targeting of water systems.
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 are believed to have died in 2017.
A famine in Yemen that has been ongoing since the start of the civil war is only worsened 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’
Since Yemen’s acute water crisis began in 2015, when the country was already facing a severe shortage of drinking water, 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.
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 to stop contamination and denial of humanitarian access. Attacks on Hodeidah have prevented some aid groups getting services and water to civilians.
“While we need to stop these attacks on water and sanitation there are broader issues,” Grieve said.
The deterioration of infrastructure, the lack of wages for government staff and the breaking down of water and sanitation systems are all issues that need to be tackled simultaneously to beat the crisis.
What if we told you that you’ve used a weapon of war today? #WWWeek https://t.co/lRreEFZYDo
On top of of lack access to water and sanitation, populations were vulnerable in multiple ways, including in terms of nutritional status, education and health status, Grieve added.
“Attacks on water infrastructure jeopardize efforts to prevent further [cholera] outbreaks,” said Grieve.
While the conflict in Yemen is making the water situation in Yemen worse, the country has been in a minor water crisis for decades, 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 stop the crisis and prevent the situation worsening, said Maude Barlow, a water activist and co-founder of the Blue Planet Project, a global “water justice” movement.
It has been predicted 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 or using water as a method of war 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.
“There are some things in the world that should be available to all,” Barlow told WikiTribune from Canada during a phone call. “Everyone has the right to water for life.”