Water, Food Shortages Squeeze Yemen

Parched hillsides of the Haraz Mountains west of Sana'a, Yemen i i

Normally, the terraced hillsides of the Haraz Mountains west of the Yemeni capital of San'a would be green with vegetation — coffee bushes, khat trees, wheat or fruit orchards. Because of recent droughts, the hillsides are brown and dusty. Matthew Kuehl for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Matthew Kuehl for NPR
Parched hillsides of the Haraz Mountains west of Sana'a, Yemen

Normally, the terraced hillsides of the Haraz Mountains west of the Yemeni capital of San'a would be green with vegetation — coffee bushes, khat trees, wheat or fruit orchards. Because of recent droughts, the hillsides are brown and dusty.

Matthew Kuehl for NPR
This 65-year-old shepherdess has worked in the hills all her life. i i

This 65-year-old shepherdess has worked in the hills all her life. She says that five of her 25 sheep have died in the past month, as they struggled to find food among the dust-covered, parched plants on the Haraz Mountains. Matthew Kuehl for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Matthew Kuehl for NPR
This 65-year-old shepherdess has worked in the hills all her life.

This 65-year-old shepherdess has worked in the hills all her life. She says that five of her 25 sheep have died in the past month, as they struggled to find food among the dust-covered, parched plants on the Haraz Mountains.

Matthew Kuehl for NPR

In Focus

Sheikh Abdullah Hussein Khalil, 68, leader of Hajjarah village i i

Sheikh Abdullah Hussein Khalil, 68, is the leader of Hajjarah village in the Haraz Mountains. Everyone in his village is waiting for rain. "With no rain," he says, "there's no work." Matthew Kuehl for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Matthew Kuehl for NPR
Sheikh Abdullah Hussein Khalil, 68, leader of Hajjarah village

Sheikh Abdullah Hussein Khalil, 68, is the leader of Hajjarah village in the Haraz Mountains. Everyone in his village is waiting for rain. "With no rain," he says, "there's no work."

Matthew Kuehl for NPR
The village of Hajjarah is perched precariously on a stone cliff, accessible only by footpath. i i

The village of Hajjarah is perched precariously on a stone cliff, accessible only by footpath. Matthew Kuehl for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Matthew Kuehl for NPR
The village of Hajjarah is perched precariously on a stone cliff, accessible only by footpath.

The village of Hajjarah is perched precariously on a stone cliff, accessible only by footpath.

Matthew Kuehl for NPR

The global food crisis has hit particularly hard in Yemen.

Already one of the poorest countries by many measures, this nation of roughly 22 million people has been struck by severe droughts and depleted water supplies in recent years.

With a central government already struggling to deal with political unrest, some Yemenis are calling the situation a potential time bomb.

Drought Browns Hillsides

Just west of the capital, San'a, the terrain grows rugged as you climb the Haraz Mountains. Normally in the spring, the magnificent terraced hillsides would be lushly dressed in shades of green, covered with fruit orchards, coffee bushes and the ubiquitous khat trees, whose mildly stimulating leaves are chewed by Yemenis for hours on end.

But this year, except for a few lightly irrigated patches, the view is mostly a hazy brown, spotted with a few blackened areas — the charred remains of controlled burns that indicate another farmer has given up for this season.

A small herd of sheep sniffs among the dust-covered bushes for something to eat, watched over by a 65-year-old woman in an orange scarf and a bright fuchsia dress. Perhaps counterintuitively, in Yemen it's the urban women who tend to wear the niqab, the full, black Muslim covering that leaves only the eyes visible. In the countryside, many women still wear the more colorful traditional clothes and leave their faces uncovered.

This shepherdess — who did not give her name — is not shy about speaking her mind, readily interrupting her son as he talks about the drought and what it's doing to their way of life. She says in the past month, five of the 25 sheep she tends have died.

"It's hard, very hard this year," she says. "There's no rain, and the plants the sheep eat are dry. The sheep are dying, the plants are dying. There's nothing else to do; we wait for the rain. That's what we always do."

Lacking Food, Water and Tourists

Once a month, the government pumps water up from below to fill the water tanks in the village of Hajjarah, one of the most dramatically situated towns in Yemen. It perches atop a rocky cliff, accessible only by footpath. Hajjarah was once home to a good number of Yemen's historically large Jewish population. Most Yemeni Jews have since relocated to Israel or elsewhere, but their work lives on among a dwindling number of silversmiths who still make traditional Yemeni jewelry.

Sheikh Abdullah Hussein Khalil, 68, has been the local authority in Hajjarah for some 40 years, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather before him. He wears typical Yemeni male attire — white desert robes, with a ceremonial dagger in the front of his belt, topped with a Western-style sport coat. His eyes sparkle as he offers strong, spiced coffee and sweet tea to a visitor, but he grows somber when the conversation turns to Yemen's three biggest shortages: food, water and tourists.

"This year, with no rain, nothing is growing — the coffee, the corn, the wheat, the khat, nothing," he says. "A couple of years ago, we might get as many as 150 tourists in a day, sometimes twice that. But now, it's only a few, and some days none at all."

Poverty, Development Challenges

The World Bank has described Yemen as "the single largest development challenge in the Middle East" — and this was before the recent weather-related problems. As in many poor corners of the world, Yemenis are finding the cost of staple foods rising and their ability to pay for them sorely tested.

There have yet to be riots over food shortages, as in Haiti or Egypt, but officials say the warning signs are growing. One Yemeni cabinet minister — who spoke on the condition of anonymity owing to the sensitive nature of the issue — says the government's ability to deal with the crisis is limited.

"This is a very dangerous time," he says, adding that he hopes the U.S. and other developed countries will realize that "economic strife can lead to radicalization."

Yemen's per-capita share of developmental assistance is well below the global average, despite its severe poverty. Analysts say this is partly the government's fault, for failing to enact the political reforms upon which some aid is conditioned — notably the Bush administration's "millennium challenge" grant.

Other aid has been suspended or delayed over the Bush administration's anger at Yemen's freeing of convicted terrorists, including one of the men involved in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors at the port of Aden.

Former Yemeni Prime Minister Abdul Kareem al-Eryani, who at age 73 has been described as one of the architects of modern Yemen, usually takes a sunny view of Yemen's potential. But at the moment, when he looks at the drought, rising food prices, the reluctance of foreign donors and growing political unrest, he sees trouble ahead for his country.

"I'm very pessimistic, frankly, for the next two to three years," he says. "So nature and man are squeezing Yemen. And I think this alarm bell should ring in various corners around us, and in the United States as well."

Correction June 3, 2008

The audio version of this story incorrectly refers to the Haraz Mountains as home to the highest peak in the Middle East. The Middle East's highest peak is actually in Iran, not Yemen.

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