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Yemen Beyond the Headlines: Population, Health, Natural Resources, and Institutions

"Ultimately, whether Yemen is able to achieve its goals for social and economic development, will, to a large extent, depend on its future population growth and size," said Gary Cook, senior health advisor at the U.S. Agency for International Development, in his opening address at an all-day conference on the role of population, health, natural resources, and institutions in Yemen's political crisis.

Date & Time

May. 18, 2011
8:30am – 3:30pm ET


"Ultimately, whether Yemen is able to achieve its goals for social and economic development, will, to a large extent, depend on its future population growth and size," said Gary Cook, senior health advisor at the U.S. Agency for International Development, in his opening address at the Woodrow Wilson Center's all-day conference, "Yemen Behind the Headlines: Population, Health, Natural Resources, and Institutions."

Panel I: Population and Development Challenges

Image removed.Since 1950, the population of Yemen has increased from 4.3 million to 24 million, with an annual population growth rate above three percent, Cook said. High fertility drives Yemen's rapid population growth, with an average total fertility rate (TFR) of 5.5 births per woman. Rates are even higher in rural areas and among women with limited or no education, he said.

Future population growth will have tremendous impacts on the country's economy, education, health, and natural resources, said Cook, and "there is a very large gap between the high fertility assumption and the low fertility assumption."

An additional 1.5 million new people will be added to the labor force and income per person will drop by 29 percent by 2035 if current fertility rates persist, said Cook. Though Yemen has a national population policy that outlines TFR targets of 3.3 in 2025 and 2.1 by 2035, the latest UN Population Division projections suggest these expectations are optimistic. Education and health demands and expenditures will increase greatly, while per capita arable land and water will decrease, exacerbating ongoing land and water scarcity in Yemen.

"We do not have enough local and external resources to address the needs of a rapidly expanding population," said Cook. "Helping couples who want to limit and space their births will also help the nation," he added.

Law, Culture, and Child Marriage

"Enforced by law and culture alike," early marriage in Yemen is common, said Dalia Al-Eryani, former project officer for Pathfinder International's Safe Age of Marriage Project. Over 50 percent of Yemeni women married before they are 17 years old, and 14 percent before they turn 14. Opponents of child marriage argue that children are neither emotionally or physically ready for marriage and that the practice increases health risks and lowers educational opportunities for girls.

Currently, there is no minimum age of marriage law in Yemen, and recent attempts to pass such a law have failed, said Al-Eryani. "The practice never really has been questioned."

"There is a belief that child marriage is a good thing – both for the girl and for the family," she said. Early marriages are a way to build family honor and tribal ties, and many poor families see opportunity for financial gain in the form of a dowry. "These families see no socially acceptable alternatives for the girl...and all of this is supported by the belief that Islam condones child marriage," she said.

Through awareness sessions, health fairs, and school plays, the community-based Safe Age of Marriage Project has helped to change social norms around child marriage in two districts in Yemen.

After the participating in the program, community members were significantly more likely to believe that delaying marriage gives girls more educational opportunities, empowers them to make decisions, and promotes healthy pregnancy and children, Al-Eryani said. Child marriage was banned in one of the communities, and the marriages of 53 girls and 26 boys were canceled as the result of the project. In the future, she hopes involving more religious and local leaders could further increase the program's impact.

Youth and "The Reproductive Health Transition"

"When we talk about fertility transition, we only talk about the number of children born," said T.S. Sunil, professor of sociology at the University of Texas San Antonio. "A reproductive health transition takes into account not just total fertility rate, but a number of different dimensions."

Women should have the freedom to decide if, when, and how often to reproduce, said Sunil, through access to safe, effective, affordable, and acceptable family planning methods. They also should have access to quality maternal health care throughout pregnancy and birth, he said.

"It's a popular belief that Islamic societies with poor and limited resources are not compatible with a reproductive health transition," said Sunil. "But the onset of a reproductive health transition is underway in Yemen."

While the transition in Yemen is progressing more slowly than in other countries in the region, many positive trends can be seen among the country's youth, said Sunil. Trends indicate a drop in fertility rates, especially among younger women; marriage of girls under 15 years old has declined; and contraceptive use among young women age 15 to 24 has increased significantly.

Government and international donor agencies "must capture the growing momentum among the younger cohort" and meet demands for better education, postponement of marriage, and healthcare services, said Sunil.

Continued focus on adolescent reproductive health will be the key to achieving the reproductive health transition, he concluded. "From an economic and human perspective, the growing young population in Yemen is potentially a tremendous asset."

Panel II: Losing the Battle to Balance Water Supply and Population Growth

Overlooked in most news coverage of Yemen's crisis is the country's struggle to manage its limited natural resources – particularly its rapidly depleting groundwater – in the face of soaring population growth. On the second panel of the day, "Natural Resources: Demand and Degradation," Yemen's ambassador to Germany, Mohammed Al-Eryani, and Daniel Egel of the RAND Corporation outlined Yemen's shaky prospects for economic development without more sustainable agricultural practices and more efficient water management.

With a population of more than 24 million and a TFR of 5.5 – nearly double the average for the region – Yemen's population is projected to grow to 36.7 million by 2025 and jump further to 61.6 million by mid-century, according to the latest UN projections. While those figures may not seem large by global standards, given Yemen's already limited stocks of arable land and groundwater, the country's rapid rate of growth may quickly outpace its resources.

"Already in a Crisis": The Groundwater Deficit

Yemen's per capita water supply is falling fast in the face of booming population growth and agricultural consumption, said Al-Eryani, a water engineer who founded Yemen's Ministry of Water and the Environment. While the commonly accepted threshold for water scarcity is 1700 cubic meters or less per capita, Yemen's per capita renewable water availability is now in the neighborhood of 120 cubic meters, he said.

Meanwhile, water scarcity has been exacerbated by erratic precipitation that has hit rainfall-dependent farmers especially hard. In a country with no real rivers or perennial streams, rainfall harvesting has long enabled agricultural production, as evidenced by the country's many intricately terraced hillsides – "the food baskets of Yemen," said Al-Eryani.

Yemenis have coped with shifting precipitation patterns by drawing more groundwater for irrigation and other domestic uses. While drilling wells has provided some short-term relief, the practice is unsustainable in the long term, creating a "water deficit," Al-Eryani said, that continues to grow each year. In the populous Sanaa basin, home to the Yemeni capital, consumption outweighs the aquifer's natural recharge rate by a factor of five to one and groundwater levels have been plummeting at six meters per year, he said. With only minimal government regulation of drilling, the country's groundwater situation is poised to worsen, one of the reasons Al-Eryani declared his country is "already in a crisis."

Stalled Economic Development

Yemen's stalled economic development is particularly pronounced outside of urban areas, "where the resources are," said Daniel Egel, citing the country's failure to build modern transportation infrastructure and develop other economic activities besides farming. He called for the international development community to focus on creating jobs in rural areas, particularly by increasing the financing available for non-agricultural businesses and by improving secondary roads. In addition, he warned development actors to be aware of how gender inequality and local social structures, such as tribes, affect development efforts.

Given the country's dependence on agriculture, water scarcity poses a threat to Yemen's food security and its economic development. Three out of every four Yemeni villages depend on rainfall for irrigation, Egel said, making them highly vulnerable to unexpected climate change-induced shifts in precipitation patterns. Water scarcity also weakens the financial stability of Yemeni households, with the cost of water "accounting for about 10 percent of income during the dry season," he said.

Averting a "Domino Effect"

Al-Eryani asserted that water management policies will "have to be designed in piecemeal fashion," as no one single action will avert a catastrophe. He suggested a number of steps to alleviate the country's growing water crunch, including:

1) Focus on the rural population, which makes up 70 percent of the population, has the highest fertility rates, and are the most reliant on agriculture;

2) Move development efforts outside of Sanaa to other regions of the country;

3) Increase investment in desalination technology for coastal areas;

4) Increase water conservation in the agricultural sector; and,

5) Exploit fossil groundwater aquifers in Yemen's sparsely populated eastern reaches.

Unless such concrete steps are taken in the coming years, the outlook is grim. At current rates of usage, Al-Eryani predicted that the country's groundwater reserves could be almost entirely depleted by 2025. With up to 55 percent of the workforce engaged in agriculture, the water situation threatens to be a "domino effect of a crisis that invites many other consequences and ramifications that are really overwhelming," he said.

"The battle to strike a sustainable balance between population growth and sustainable water supplies was lost many years ago," Al-Eryani said. "But maybe we can still win the war if we can undertake some of these measures."

Luncheon Address: Governance Challenges

"Moving beyond Ali Abdullah Saleh has proved to be very challenging, not only for the Yemeni people, but for the neighboring countries and for the international community as a whole," said former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Edmund Hull during his luncheon address.

Yemen's protest movement is different than those of Egypt or Tunisia because neighboring countries, such as those in the Gulf Cooperation Council, are actively involved. "[They] don't have the luxury of saying this is a purely Yemeni affair," said Hull. "They have to identify where their national interests are and then they have to come up with a legitimate and effective way of protecting those interests." Included in those national interests is dealing with the presence of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

But, Hull said, "It would be a shame if, as part of this revolution, what was good in Yemen gets tossed out with what was bad." Among the institutions that should be protected are the Social Fund for Development, a government development initiative designed to reduce poverty, and the Central Security Forces, "still a very necessary institution and one that has to be protected if other challenges in Yemen are to be met," he said.

"It's a mistake to over-focus on the end of a regime. Yes, it's important to get a transfer of power, but I would argue [that it is] equally important to institutionalize the forces that have led to this, as a safeguard against the counter revolution and as an impetus to meeting those many, many political challenges that Yemen faces," said Hull.

Going forward, Hull said that elections will be key: Yemen had good electoral experiences in 2003 and 2006 but the system has since suffered some "backsliding." He also emphasized the importance of letting the youth participate, protecting social networking systems and NGOs, instituting legal requirements to promote transparency, and freeing up and protecting the media. "Unless you have a media spotlight, abuses are going to accumulate," he said.

Panel III: Future Development, State Capacity, and the U.S.

"Yemen is not a basket case," said Charles Schmitz, an associate professor at Towson University, starting off the last panel. "There have been substantial achievements that I think we need to take into account." Among these achievements, he highlighted Yemen's growth in life expectancy, literacy rates, and gross domestic product. The country's population growth rate has also slowed over the past two decades, though its total fertility rate remains very high.

These gains were fuelled by two resource booms, Schmitz explained: mainly, remittances from the construction boom in the 1970s and oil production. However, oil production dropped off dramatically after peaking around 2001, and remittances have not been able to keep up with the growth of the economy.

"Yemen is in a very severe crisis," Schmitz said. "The oil has stopped... the balance of payments has been going negative for the last couple of years... and the government appears to be dipping into the central bank." As a result, he said there is a "very real" possibility of the currency – the riyal – collapsing. The currency represents trust in the government, of which there is none right now, he said.

An Opportunity for New Thinking

"The key variable to the future of the Yemeni economy is state capacity, and this is something Yemen has not done well thus far, largely because of the political crisis," Schmitz said.

"I think we must be attuned to the reality around us," said Jeremy Sharp, a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs with the Congressional Research Service. "Quite frankly, Yemen needs a lobby in this country. Yes, we have a tight budget environment, but it's also an opportunity for new thinking."

"The degree and extent of U.S. engagement with based primarily on the perceived terrorist threat there," said Sharp. "Our policy toward Yemen always seems to be one horrific terrorist attack away from public outcries for deeper U.S. involvement – i.e., military involvement."

A Cycle of Transitions?

"We may be looking at cycles of transition in Yemen over the coming decades," said Ginny Hill, an associate fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House. "Stable political settlements take time." The street protestors are not going to get what they want in the short term, "but just two or three of them sitting in government or being involved in the negotiation process... is going to change the dialogue in Yemen," she said.

The United States has difficult questions to answer, said Sharp: Who will control Yemen's security forces down the line? How will the next leader deal with the U.S.-Yemen partnership? Will power be fragmented between civilian and military leaders? Will the next leader play the nationalist card and reduce cooperation with the United States to bolster their own public standing?

"In the absence of the degree of engagement that we need, the [U.S. government] aims high rhetorically," said Sharp. "We speak about these things while pursuing our own national security goals on the ground. Perhaps this path is unsustainable and events will force the U.S. to pay even more attention to Yemen. Or perhaps we will continue to muddle along this path and never quite reach the brink, precipice, or impending crisis that is so routinely predicted in the media."


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Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform US foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more

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