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Water and War: Yemen’s Humanitarian Crisis

By Natalia Ruvalcaba

Political turmoil amid a humanitarian crisis has left nearly 20 million Yemenis in a position of complete vulnerability.  Yemen has been facing a water shortage for years when climate change brought drought to the region.  With a growing population, poor management, coupled with extreme drought, water soon became scarce.  However, the water crisis transformed drastically when political strife threatened water sources even more.

In late January of 2011, protests broke out in efforts to oust President Saleh, an authoritarian ruler, who failed to rectify the ongoing issues facing Yemen citizens.  Saleh ruled over Yemen for 33 years after being elected in 1978 when former President Ahmed Hussein al-Ghashmi was assassinated.  He was seen as an accomplished leader when North and South Yemen were unified under his rule and was elected as president for a third time under the first, direct presidential election[1].  However, as fighting amongst extremist groups began to grow and turmoil spiraled out of control, President Saleh failed to bring peace back to the county.  Leading up to 2011, fighting became incessant, and due to the successful ousting of leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, many Yemenis sought the same fate[2].  As a result, anti-government protests in the streets of Yemen grew and with such, President Saleh saw no return to his presidency.  In an effort to calm the chaos, Saleh sets forth a plan to establish a parliamentary system through the drafting of a new constitution.  Though as time progressed and no concrete plan was set, the neighboring Gulf nations orchestrated a deal that would guarantee the removal of President Saleh[3].  Surprisingly, Saleh agrees, though this accordance is short-lived as Saleh retracted this statement later on.  Due to his retraction, opposition forces rebelled, and in early June of 2011, President Saleh was targeted at his palace.  While this event failed in its attempt to kill Saleh, it led to the deaths of several others.  This, however, led to a signed agreement in which Saleh transferred his powers to deputy Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.  In February of 2012, it was solidified through a handover ceremony that Yemen’s new president was Abdrabbuh Hadi[4].

Many thought that the new administration would resolve the ongoing issues in Yemen, though this was unfortunately not the direction in which Hadi’s presidency followed.  Attacks by jihadists, food insecurity, water insecurity, and unemployment were still of issue, and President Hadi wasn’t armed with the necessary artillery that assured rest.  Rather, Yemen was still dealing with rebel movements that threatened not only the political stability of the nation but its already worn-down water supply. President Hadi’s rule was marked, significantly by the Houthi movement, a group of Zaydi Shiites of northern Yemen[5].  The Houthis had already tried to rebel against the previous presidency of Saleh on six different occasions between 2004 and 2010.  The Houthi movement was persistent in its efforts and remains as such as war carries on.  While the Houthis claim that their efforts began as a way to combat corruption and economic underdevelopment, their actions have hurt Yemen citizens far too much.  The water crisis that existed before the war is now exacerbated as the weaponization of water has made it much more difficult for Yemen citizens to have access to clean water.

To make matters worse, in 2014, the Houthis began “colluding with Saleh against Hadi secretly. Even by the standards of Middle East politics, it was a remarkable and hypocritical reversal of alliances by both the Houthis and Saleh. Much of the army remained loyal to Saleh and his family, so together with the Houthis, the two had a preponderance of force in the country. Hadi was deeply unpopular and seen as a Saudi stooge”[6].  The political alliances formed merely devastated Yemen, as it resulted in the capture of Sanaa.  The Houthi movement, too, was backed by Iran who is opposed to the Saudi-led coalition of Gulf States fighting to maintain government control of Yemen[7].  With the Houthis’ control over significant regions of Yemen, they are able to weaponize water, making the political strife of a country directly harm its water supply.  Hodeidah, one of the biggest cities in Yemen, is a critical port located on the Red Sea.  Approximately 70 percent of Yemen’s commercial and humanitarian aid is sourced through the Hodeidah Port[8].  These imports contain water resources, evidently necessary for amending the water crisis at hand.  However, Houthi forces merely use this knowledge to their advantage, and as a result, the weaponization of water has been made.  More specifically, “The weaponization of water through siege and blockades is a tactic both sides in the conflict have readily employed in an attempt to strengthen their leverage. Houthi forces have adopted these tactics to restrict the access in the battle for control of Taiz, which has severely constrained the ability of aid organizations to supply vulnerable civilians in need”[9].  Without access to critical points of entry, outside sources are unable to assist in Yemen’s fight against Houthi forces who are exacerbating the water crisis.  Violating international humanitarian law, the Houthi movement continues to create blockades and restricts food, water, and medical supplies from reaching the hands of those who are in dire need.  Checkpoints allow them to control what is permitted inside the country, and much of the aid that is being imported is denied or confiscated and discarded.  The reopening of Yemen’s ports for commercial imports is necessary for its citizens’ survival as Yemen is facing one of the worst humanitarian crisis, but with Houthi control this vision is difficult to foresee.

Many deaths have come as a result of the sanitation issues of Yemen’s water supplies.  With the lack of accessible, clean water, many people have resorted to drinking and bathing in unsanitary water, leading to the uptake in cholera cases. Cholera had spread rapidly in the area, and there is no foreseeable end as Houthi control prevents aid from coming in, and sanitation remains damaged by the outcomes of war.  Any more destruction done to Yemen’s water infrastructure is said to bring about an unyielding epidemic. As access to clean water has been made unviable by Houthi forces, coupled with restrictions to medical aid, death due to an easily curable disease has left Yemenis mourning their loved ones.  


  1. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Ali Abdullah Saleh”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 17 Mar. 2021,
  2. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Arab Spring”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 27 Jan. 2021, 
  3. “Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh Cedes Power.” BBC News, BBC, 27 Feb. 2012,
  4. Kasinof, Laura. “Yemen Swears in New President to the Sound of Applause, and Violence.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 Feb. 2012,
  5. “What Is the Houthi Movement?” Institute for Global Change, 2016,
  6. Riedel, Bruce. “Who Are the Houthis, and Why Are We at War with Them?” Brookings, Brookings, 18 Dec. 2017,
  7. “War in Yemen | Global Conflict Tracker.” Council on Foreign Relations, Council on Foreign Relations,
  8. “An Update on Yemen’s Water Crisis and the Weaponization of Water.” Atlantic Council, 19 Aug. 2019,
  9. “An Update on Yemen’s Water Crisis and the Weaponization of Water.” Atlantic Council, 19 Aug. 2019,
  10. Deutsche Welle. “Saudi Airstrikes in YEMEN Hit Facilities Providing Water to Hundreds of THOUSANDS FACING Cholera EPIDEMIC: DW: 30.07.2018.” DW.COM,
  11. Deutsche Welle. “Saudi Airstrikes in YEMEN Hit Facilities Providing Water to Hundreds of THOUSANDS FACING Cholera EPIDEMIC: DW: 30.07.2018.” DW.COM,
  12. “Water, Sanitation and Hygiene.” UNICEF Yemen, 2019, 

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