More than just Scarcity: Multifaceted Water Conflicts in Yemen

Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, will likely run out of water in 10 years. That is the pressing reality of water scarcity in Yemen today. However, scarcity is not the only cause of water-related conflicts in Yemen. Structural factors such as increasing competition over diminishing water sources (mainly because of population growth and qat plantations), chronic poverty and growing urban-rural disparities, decades of conflict, and weak governance in times of rapid political change also contribute and interplay.

Moreover, it is difficult to find constructive ways to address these challenges because the local capacities for preventing and resolving water conflicts have become undermined. Drawing upon a 12-month research project and a workshop with Yemeni stakeholders in June, this commentary explains how the lack of capacity to prevent and resolve violent conflict has been caused by two main factors: weak rule of law and fragmented channels for conflict resolution. Both factors reveal a destabilizing tension between the ‘formal’ and the ‘informal’ in Yemen but at the same time help us identify how donors may be able to respond.

Weak Rule of Law

There is no shortage of laws relevant to water in Yemen, including the Constitution of 1991, the Water Law, the Civil Code no. (14) of 2002, and the traditional customs and rules. There is a general lack of public awareness and practical knowledge of how the relevant laws, particularly the formal laws can be applied.

Our research also revealed that some of the laws relating to water have limited relevance for contemporary Yemen, particularly as groundwater become more intensively used, the exploitation of which is not well-specified in traditional laws. In addition, all of the laws lack coherence in their values and principles. For example, water is res nullius of nobody’s according to the Shari’ah and the Civil Code, whereas in the Constitution and the Water Law, water is a property of the state.

The incoherence may lead to contradictions between regulatory approaches, which decrease the possibility of conflict resolution. Linked to this, representatives of local water users and water governing authorities raised that during the resolution of conflicts in which they are personally involved, the laws have been interpreted to the serve the advantage of influential people.

Fragmented Channels for Conflict Resolution

Legal pluralism in Yemen has produced multiple channels for resolving conflict. On the positive side, our case studies from the research demonstrate that the multiple conflict resolution mechanisms allow stakeholders to jointly select mediators or arbitrators, which is particularly instrumental for settling conflicts in a time when local and national authorities are distrusted. Nevertheless, the channels are sometimes conflicting.

The majority of water-related conflicts are settled by sheikhs who in turn seek technical advice from judges and National Water Resources Authorities on complex cases, as a representative of the Supreme Court of Appeals confirmed. Among respondents reached by our research, the courts were found to be the last resort for conflicting parties. When non-violent water-related conflicts occur, our case studies revealed that they seldom go to the courts as conflicts over water as such. Instead, when they end up in the courts it is because criminal offences have been committed, that is, when the conflicts have spiraled and become violent.

Traditionally, sheikhs were selected based on a combination of heredity, merit, and the acceptance of that status within the tribe. Our research unveiled that sheikhs became instrumental to conflict resolution due to the respect they receive and their wisdom on traditional rules. As many stakeholders during our project workshop confirmed, under the former regime (1978-2012) of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the traditional sheikhs were either incorporated into Saleh’s patronage network or new sheikhs were arbitrarily appointed, which undermined the traditional sheikhs who resisted joining the network of patronage and corruption. Some of the new sheikhs also accepted additional roles in the government and the military, which clashed with their primary responsibility of representing their tribe. Our research found that over time many communities lost trust in the traditional system of sheikhs, which made it easier for water-related disputes to spiral and become violent.

International Donors

Despite these challenges, international donors have important roles to play in strengthening the capacity of Yemeni actors to prevent and resolve conflicts. The water sector in Yemen is heavily dependent on international donor support, which provides unique opportunities for donors to influence local and national actors and to encourage governance reforms. Previous studies found two specific roles comprising: 1) the financing of improved water resource management; and 2) the provision of technical assistance in the development and implementation of water management programs, guided by the joint principles of integrated water resources management and water demand management.

At the same time, stakeholders cautioned that international donors can inadvertently induce conflict where interventions are top-down and poorly designed. Although powerful and influential, donors through unconstructive competition and inadequate cooperation can become ‘divided and conquered’ by local leaders. To avoid these outcomes, donors should ensure an equitable distribution of water in the projects they fund in order to win the support and trust of local stakeholders. Moreover, project conditionality should ensure local authorities’ compliance with the rule of law.

Additionally, due to the general distrust in local politicians, Yemeni stakeholders emphasized direct engagement by donors with local communities as one way to achieve greater accountability and aid effectiveness. Finally, our research found that there is a demand in Yemen for international donors to help ensure the impartiality of community-level dispute resolution processes.


Against the background of extreme water scarcity and limited capacity to deal constructively with related disputes, destructive acts by local individuals or groups can easily trigger new or intensify existing violent conflicts. We have reflected briefly on the importance of not only having pertinent and coherent laws but also the need for greater public proper awareness and accountability through the enforcement of the legal system. The erosion of the traditional role of sheikhs in conflict resolution and the limited role of the courts with regard to most (non-violent) conflicts requires fresh thinking on how existing channels can be used more effectively.

Finally, despite the recent problems in channeling funds into Yemen, donors remain influential and can leverage the necessary legal and institutional change to prevent and resolve conflicts. The rapidly dwindling water resources and the alarming prospect of water running out in the next decade should be the catalyst for all stakeholders to agree on the priorities for immediate action and an agenda for sustainable and effective reform.


The research project was financially supported by the Embassy of the Netherlands in Sana’a, Yemen.

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