UN official: Yemen could be ‘first country to run out of water’

Bishow Parajuli, the World Food Programme's representative in Yemen, in the capital, Sana'a. [Fares Khoailed/WFP].

Bishow Parajuli, the World Food Programme's representative in Yemen (centre-left), in Sana'a, the capital. [Fares Khoailed/WFP].

Since the political crisis erupted in Yemen in 2011, the country has begun to move towards democracy. Many challenges remain in the country, wracked by civil unrest and widespread water and food insecurity, says Bishow Parajuli, the UN World Food Programme’s representative in Yemen.

Bishow Parajuli, who is of Nepalese origin, has worked with the UN World Food Programme (WFP) for over 23 years, with assignments in Myanmar, Egypt, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Mozambique. He currently serves as the WFP’s country director and representative in Yemen. He spoke to EURACTIV’s Marc Hall in Brussels.

How is the transitional government faring?

The transitional government is drafting a new constitution and they’re planning elections. So this political element is moving forward towards democracy.

There is the issue of Al-Qaeda in much of the south. There is also demand for separation in the south, because this country used to be two countries. Yemen used to be North and South Yemen. They came together in the 1990s, and some were left unhappy. Some groups are asking for independence, but there is an effort to reconcile and move forward.

There is conflict in the north. There are different groups here, including the Houthis, fighting to get more territory, and there are lots of problems related to tribal conflict.

Security is a major challenge, even in Sana’a [the capital in the centre-west]. Sadly, there was recently the killing of a French diplomat, working for the European Union. A few months ago, a German security advisor was killed. There have been a lot of abductions for ransoms in the country. In fact, we have a UNICEF colleague who was abducted nearly 260 days ago, so there are these challenges.

Is the government cooperative with the efforts of the international community?

The government is very cooperative but sadly they is not enough control in several areas. They are struggling and fighting on many fronts, such as nutrition, for example. They are scaling up nutrition, which is a cross-issue, (and) cross-ministerial. It’s part of the UN Secretary General’s initiative, so they are looking at it from a longer term point of view. They are looking at education, education for all. They are all trying to see long-term.

The whole humanitarian situation in Yemen is culminating from a long negligence of development, and it’s sort of an economic downfall. There is a big threat in terms of revenue-generating potential. They are depending mostly on the sale of fuel, gas and oil, but these oil pipelines are constantly blown up. The revenue generated this year has been about one fourth. There is a problem with electricity. The groups are blowing up the electricity lines.

Sana’a has recently been majorly affected by a lack of fuel. Yemen is one of the countries with the highest level of fuel subsidies. They are living beyond their means. Now, with the lack of income coming in, they are not able to afford their cost of living. Oxfam has done a report showing that this aggravates the situation and creates new problems. It is a perfect storm.

Because of the fuel crisis, they are not able to buy fuel at subsidised rates, so there is a scarcity of fuel, which is impacting the transportation sector, the irrigation sector and the food sector. The price of fuel goes up, so the price of food goes up, obviously. Even in one of our programmes, at one stage, we were not able to get enough wheat milled locally to supply all the quantity of wheat flour for the target population.

Has the violence hampered access to the most violent areas, in terms of food insecurity?

People have been displaced, so that affects their livelihood potential; earning, farming, for example. Then also, the low revenue availability in the government has reduced government potential for various intervention and support programmes. People are no longer getting the support that they were getting previously.

Have drone strikes continued?

There were some events. I have not heard lately, but there were. The government was announcing some of those interventions, in Shabwa and Abyan. This [points to Abyan on a map] is a sort of no-go area, a base of Al-Qaeda. They are a major security threat.

Have things eased off since the transitional government came to power?

Things have improved in certain areas, but then there are more challenges in other areas. Improved in the sense that people have more hope, a voice, for the political process and how the country is moving forward. That is a big change; freedom of the press, for example.

In terms of the economy and livelihoods there are more challenges because of the situation. For us as a humanitarian organisation, we’re concerned, because the humanitarian response plan that was developed for this year, for about $592 million (€439.3 million), of which about 40% is for the food and agriculture cluster, is barely 20% funded.

These are the challenges, because the needs are higher. The worry we have as a humanitarian community living in Yemen is, sadly, that there are challenges all over the world. Lately, Syria is sucking lots of resources, now Iraq has come, so we worry about Yemen being forgotten by the donors, which can have a very negative impact on our ability to reach these people and their perception of positive changes.

We have been hearing that the European Union is giving it priority in terms of funding and support, and that is critical, given the many issues: politics, security as well as socio-economic issues. At least Yemenis have demonstrated that they can talk and can resolve their differences, moving forward. The country is holding.

Are there problems with information flows?

Actually, there is no problem with information flowing from Yemen. There is no media control. Anyone can talk anything.

There are limited Western media because of security, so therefore the reporting is limited because there is a big threat for Western media groups. There were a couple of abductions of Western media personnel, so they’re worried about that.

Are there parts of the country that are a lot safer than others, parts that are under control, Sana’a, for example?

Well, in the real sense, no place is safe but there are some places that are safer than others. I have been personally all over Yemen.

Is the country still on course for elections?

Yes, next year. They’re planned for March. The draft constitution should be ready by July-August. That was the target. I don’t know if they will meet that target now.

What’s the population of Sana’a?

It’s about four or five million, even more. It’s expanding. From the plane, [you see] it’s totally dry.

Where does food production for Sana’a come from mostly?

They import 90% of their food.                                     

In exchange for energy?

Yes, energy, in particular.

Do they have a decent water supply?

Well, they say that Yemen could be the first country in the world to run out of water. It’s a tough situation. But so far so good.

Subscribe to our newsletters