ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And from water issues in the Midwest to water issues in the Middle East. For decades, experts have warned about the severe over use of water in Yemen.
NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Yemen's capital, San'a.
PETER KENYON: First, a bit of context. In 1998, NPR visited Yemen as part of a series on water issues. In that report, a young NGO worker named Abdul Rahman al-Eryani explained the desperate water situation in Ta'iz, south of the capital, where water was so scarce that some households only had it once every six weeks.
Eleven years later, Eryani is the minister of Water and Environment; Ta'iz residents are still waiting six weeks for water to flow from the tap; and here in the capital, San'a, the situation has gone from bad to looming disaster.
Minister ABDUL RAHMAN AL-ERYANI (Ministry of Water and Environment, Yemen): We are in crisis and this is expected. And then we are using almost 100 percent more than the any open - any renewable water that's available in San'a.
KENYON: The alluvial aquifers nearer to the surface have been exhausted, and drill bits must now chew through more than 3,000 feet of earth before reaching the ancient sandstone aquifer that holds what Eryani believes is the last of San'a's reachable underground supply.
No one knows precisely when it will run out, but there's no doubt that it will, and probably sooner rather than later.
How are Yemenis responding? By drilling illegal wells and pumping more water than ever.
Well water gushes into Hassan al-Jibouri's(ph) tanker truck at a roadside pump along one of San'a's main streets. Jibouri and his fellow drivers spend their days selling water to hotels, restaurants and private homes.
Mr. HASSAN AL-JIBOURI (Water Vendor): (Foreign language spoken).
KENYON: He says a typical water delivery costs 1,000 rials. That's about $5. If he has to drive a long distance, it might cost a bit more.
How did Yemen get into this crisis? In part, it's the inevitable result of a rapidly growing population, limited rainfall and finite water resources, but experts and ordinary Yemenis agree that policy blunders have both accelerated the crisis and made it harder to fix.
First, there is the massive problem of agriculture. Despite the severe drinking water shortages, at least 85 percent of Yemen's available water goes to agriculture, where huge amounts are wasted.
For centuries, Yemeni farmers captured rainwater for their crops, but in the 1970s, well-intentioned international groups like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund showed up with a raft of incentives to get farmers to drill wells and use underground aquifers instead.
Anwer Sahooly is a water expert with the German Development Corporation, a major player in Yemen's water reform efforts. He says more than a million acres of farmland that used to be rain-fed are now irrigated with underground water, using tremendously inefficient methods that lose vast amounts of water to evaporation and leakage.
Mr. ANWER SAHOOLY (Water Expert, German Development Corporation): We have to reverse the process now and make people get used to a rainwater harvesting. We have to encourage harvesting from floods, from spit irrigation, from every drop that we get, and stop drilling any more wells.
KENYON: But despite a new law outlawing most private wells, the drilling goes on, and the sound of water pumps can be heard on farm plots all around the capital. The most popular crop of all is khat, a mildly narcotic leaf that Yemenis love to chew.
Small farmer Abdullah al-Jidri(ph), sporting a softball-sized wad of khat leaves in his left cheek, says a lot of farmers would be happy to grow fruits, vegetables and grains, but they can't live without the cash brought in by khat.
Mr. ABDULLAH AL-JIDRI: (Through translator) With food crops, we have to wait for a year or longer to get a harvest, and if there's a problem, you won't get a crop. But with khat, you just put some water on it, and you have leaves in a month's time that you can sell immediately. It's a cash crop.
KENYON: When asked if he's heard that the government wants farmers to stop growing khat to save water, Jidri and his brother laugh.
Mr. AL-JIDRI: (Through translator) Don't believe the officials. They ask us to grow more khat for them to chew.
KENYON: Other than cash for farmers, Yemenis agree that khat produces no benefit and, in fact, impairs the productivity of a large chunk of the labor force most afternoons, but efforts to curtail khat production and consumption are so far largely ineffectual.
Some long-term reforms are underway, notably the decentralization of water management to the local level, and there are immediate gains to be had by replacing open-channel waterlines and flood irrigation methods with more efficient pipes and drip hoses. But water expert Anwer Sahooly says it is hard to bring water to the top of the agenda of a country with so many problems.
Mr. SAHOOLY: There should be a champion at the level of the president, the vice president, always talking about water issues. All civilization has grown around water. Water is life, and we have known that for a long time.
KENYON: At the moment, however, a violent rebellion, secessionist movements and a growing al-Qaida presence are drowning out the voices of those warning that a massive water failure could soon be Yemen's biggest problem of all.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, San'a.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.