Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Guns and Butter = Qat and Water

On the first day of an introductory economics class, you are usually lectured on the simplistic, fundamental tradeoff concerning how the federal government allocates resources: guns (defense spending) and butter (social services). In Yemen these days, the fundamental tradeoff seems to be between qat and water.

According to this article in the Guardian that I stumbled across last week, Yemen is literally chewing itself to death. The treasured Yemeni past-time of relaxing in the mid-afternoon by chewing on some qat is threatening the viability of the water basin in Sana'a. Though the growing and consumption of qat is fundamental to the Yemeni economy, it is contributing to massive water shortages in the capital since the growing of qat requires extensive irrigation. Four times as much water is taken out of the Sana'a water basin as falls into it each year. Furthermore, the fact that Sana'a is one of the fastest growing capitals in the world is only exacerbating the problem.

Sana'a is expected to run out of economically viable water supplies by 2017. Coincidentally, the World Bank predicts that 2017 will be the year in which Yemen will have to start devoting all of its oil resources to internal demand, leaving it nothing to export. Since oil sales currently account for 75% of state revenues, this could have drastic implications for humanitarian, economic, political stability in Yemen.

As Killian noted last week by highlighting the James Dorsey article in Foreign Affairs on governance and security in Yemen, armed groups like al-Qaeda's Yemeni affiliate have taken to providing grass roots services in parts of the country that are not exactly under the direct control of the Yemeni government. Of course, this concept of acquiring legitimacy through implementing grass roots social services is nothing new (see Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in Gaza, as well as many groups in Iraq since 2003). The point is that as Yemen's twin water and oil crises begin to accelerate, opportunities may increase for militant non-state actors to acquire legitimacy by filling the power vacuum.

I'm not suggesting that the West in general or the US in particular "do something" about this. After all, whenever the topic of Yemen makes its way into the US public discourse, prominent senators start saying crazy things like the US should invade Yemen. In that respect, maybe it's better that Yemen saw its Google News searches drop from over 24,000 in January to just 593 in February (think of all that wasted expertise!).

Nevertheless, the international community would be foolish to turn a blind eye to the deteriorating humanitarian and security situation in Yemen. The recent fighting there has left over a quarter of a million people displaced, and much of the infrastructure demolished. Though an international donor's conference was held in London last January, and Saudi Arabia is hosting a Gulf donor's conference in Riyadh this weekend, the amount of aid so far committed to rebuilding Yemen has been modest at best. The GCC as well as the international community can and should do more to stave off an impending humanitarian disaster.

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