The political economy of water management in Yemen: Conflict analysis and recommendations

Posted on 6 November 2014


Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Arab region and is faced with political instability. An acute water crisis looms over the country, as Yemenis are amongst those populations with the lowest water availability per capita in the world. 

Water scarcity in Yemen is a human security threat. Each year 2,500 people die as a result of water- related conflicts, according to unofficial estimates. Therefore, prevention and adaptation strategies are needed for the local, regional, and national level that are based on a robust understanding of the various sources of insecurity, their interdependency and cumulative conflict potential. 

Despite research and aid work in Yemen in recent years, significant knowledge gaps remain, especially concerning the use of national and local rules and procedures for solving water-related conflicts. 

See the website for more information on the project.


The team has analysed how water conflicts arise in specific cases and to which formal and traditional dispute resolution mechanisms stakeholders resort. By doing so, the team addresses the role and effectiveness of formal and traditional rules and practices in water related conflicts. 

This project has developed policy relevant recommendations for the Dutch Embassy in Sana’a, Yemen, for the prevention and the resolution of water-related conflicts, by assessing the political economy of water governance in Yemen.

Lessons learned
Local experts conducted in-depth individual interviews and group discussions on nine actual conflicts in three areas across Yemen. The areas were chosen to represent a cross-section of the different geo-hydrological and socio-economic contexts:

  • Competition over groundwater in highlands (Sana’a basin);
  • Conflicts over surface water in ephemeral rivers (Wadi Siham);
  • Peri-urban competition (Taizz).  

In the researched areas, the people mainly rely on traditional rules (Urf) and other agreements to regulate the rights and restrictions with regard to water access, use and distribution.

With regard to conflict resolution mechanisms, a main observation is that there are multiple mechanisms (traditional and formal), however they are too weak individually and collectively to address the risk and outbreak of conflict,

For 33 years, President Saleh strengthened his power by strategically using ‘divide and rule tactics’ to weaken possible opposition. He created a complex system of nepotism and patronage, in which checks and balances could not be properly enforced

The main stakeholders in water conflicts are the rural and predominantly agricultural water users. Because wealth is important in the development of water resources, the poor (and women) are unequally affected by the created water shortages. In all the cases, women do not have any specific rights when it comes to water, but carry major responsibilities, both domestically and in relation to income generation.

If conflicting parties are unable to settle the conflict, a third party can be invited to settle the conflict. Because of the pluriformity of the legal institutions this third party can be a state actor (courts, judges, etc.), tribal and customary institutions (sheikhs, wise elderly, etc.), or religious actors (religious leaders).

Through the National Dialogue, Yemen has started the process of formulating a new constitution based on six regional states. At the same time there is a risk of further fragmentation and parallelism. But the new political landscape may also offer an opportunity to strengthen local management and power constellations.

The projects suggested specific recommendations for

1) Awareness raising, capacity building and information exchange

2) Strengthening collective choice arrangements

3) Support for the rule of law

Picture: 16 Jun 2014 - On 5-6 June in Amman, The Hague Institute’s water diplomacy team met with a variety of water stakeholders from Yemen, in an intensive and interactive workshop.  

Technologies used

Innovative analytical framework for political economy analysis of water governance.

Project location

Project partners

  • MetaMeta Communications
  • The Hague Institute for Global Justice