Sana’a is a city full of problems, but the biggest problem is hiding under our feet. That well in the basement is never going to draw water again. Sana'a is on the point of running completely dry.
There are no rivers in Yemen. Sana’a used to get by with wells, but back then Sana'a was a much smaller city. In modern times, the population has exploded, from sixty thousand residents in the nineteen forties to estimates of over two million today (the country is too broken for an actual census). The days when you could sink a well from your basement are long gone.
In the seventies, you might hit water after drilling a few dozen meters. Today there are wells going dry that are over a kilometer deep. The water table is dropping by two meters a year. The city is drinking fossil water deposited thousands of years ago, and what's worse, using it for agriculture. Part of the urgency in my trip is the worry that there won't be a city to visit for much longer.
In a less broken country, the water crisis would dominate every facet of public life. In Yemen, public life is a joke. The government is so corrupt and paralyzed by crisis that it can't perform the most basic tasks. The city's wells are completely unmonitored; no one even knows how many there are. Private owners will keep drilling for as long as they can, but at some point even the deepest wells are going to run dry. And then something awful will happen.
Old Sana’a may survive as some kind of a museum exhibit, but in a matter of years (not decades) the rest of this vast city will have to move or die. The situation is so dire that the previous government seriously considered moving the capital to the stifling Red Sea coast, or somehow piping desalinated water over the three kilometer high mountains that separate the capital from the coast, at inconceivable expense.
It's hard to look at a city this old and imagine it could just go away. But the numbers don't add up. There isn't enough water here for two million people. There certainly isn't enough water for two million people and agriculture. But how do you tell a desperately poor farmer to stop growing qat? And who is going to make him listen?
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