Our report finds that interventions are needed to prevent the spread of solar power accelerating groundwater depletion.
In a major new study CEOBS has identified a potential link between steep declines in groundwater in Yemen and the expansion of solar power in agriculture. In this blog, Leonie Nimmo introduces our findings.
The spread of solar power in Yemen is having an unintended negative impact: rapidly exhausting the country’s scarce groundwater reserves, as detailed in our new report. This is because solar power has the potential to extract more water than diesel-powered pumping as it comes with no ongoing fuel costs, so there are fewer economic constraints on groundwater use.
Yemen’s potential solar resource is vast, and solar has become an essential and life-saving source of power as the war has impacted fossil fuel supplies. But our research shows why the transition to solar power in groundwater abstraction must be made sustainable. Achieving this will be the responsibility of all stakeholders, from well owners and communities, to development agencies and the local and national authorities.
Yemen’s future viability as a state may be undermined by insufficient groundwater reserves, in addition to the disastrous humanitarian impacts this would have. The country already has amongst the lowest per capita water availability in the world – roughly 1.3% of the world average.
Yemen’s conflict has disrupted its groundwater monitoring system, so CEOBS used satellite measurements of the Earth’s gravitational field and soil moisture data to estimate groundwater changes.
We combined the groundwater results with expert interviews and publicly available datasets – including on energy markets, agricultural production, rainfall and conflict intensity – to gain a holistic understanding of the groundwater situation and make recommendations for action by all stakeholders.
What we found
We found that groundwater levels are now at their lowest since satellite records began in 2002. In the early years of the conflict (2014-2017), groundwater levels in western Yemen recovered somewhat as fluctuations in diesel prices and availability reduced agricultural production, and negatively impacted food security. A drop in groundwater levels was found from 2018 onwards, however, in spite of above-average rainfall. We hypothesise that this is a result of the expansion of solar-powered agricultural groundwater pumping.
Yemen’s transition to solar was accelerated by the collapse of its national grid in 2015, the soaring price and reduced availability of diesel, and lower costs for solar panels. Domestic and agricultural use of solar have both increased, with large arrays of panels appearing on farms from 2017 onwards. The expansion of solar power, and the benefits it has brought, has been one of the few positive narratives to have emerged from the conflict. Until now, the potential negative impacts have not been addressed.
Yemen is in the throes of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis: more than 20 million people have almost nothing to eat. The country has suffered from unsustainable groundwater extraction since many formerly rainfed agricultural systems were converted to become dependent on groundwater from the 1970s onwards. International agencies such as the World Bank facilitated some of this agricultural restructuring, and encouraged a shift away from domestic food production and towards the production of cash crops for export.
Until recently, groundwater abstraction was powered by diesel, leaving agricultural production subject to fluctuations in diesel markets. The crop that has remained economically viable in the face of diesel price volatility is the water-intensive narcotic qat. With 73% of people dependent on agriculture for their income, but only producing 10% of its own staple foods, Yemen’s people were vulnerable to food insecurity before armed conflict engulfed the country.
What needs to happen?
The report includes a set of recommendations for the ongoing monitoring of Yemen’s groundwater and a multi-agency, multi-sector response to address the current decline. This should focus on the effective and equitable management of water resources, as well as support for sustainable livelihoods. Although the war creates huge and ever-changing challenges, Yemen’s people cannot afford to wait until the conflict has ended for action to be taken.
Yemen’s traditional agricultural systems date back 5,000 years and used rainwater, but were sophisticated enough to support livelihoods throughout entire watersheds. The systems were underpinned by social networks that oversaw water management, but which have been weakened in recent decades by external influence and rapid technological and societal change. Nevertheless, the value of Yemen’s indigenous agricultural and rainwater harvesting practices needs to be better recognised by development agencies and investments made in the rehabilitation of Yemen’s ancient agricultural terraces. Support for sustainable livelihoods also needs to include appropriate technologies and finance for small producers. This must enable farmers throughout the country to utilise water-saving irrigation techniques.
Because of the fragmentation of Yemen, targeting interventions at the local level is important, but local civil society organisations face structural barriers. Food for Humanity has forged local peace agreements by addressing water rights, and delivered water to tens of thousands of people. However, it is unable to access UN funding because of a requirement to have a minimum turnover of US$200,000. UN agencies should urgently review their aid programmes to ensure that they are more flexible, and accessible for a more diverse group of actors, notably grassroots organisations.
CEOBS further recommends the establishment of a roundtable of Yemeni and international experts to develop a roadmap for ongoing remote and in-situ groundwater monitoring, and aquifer recharge modelling, to help inform on sustainable levels of abstraction. Furthermore, Yemeni civil society needs to be connected to international expertise. On the one hand, this would help facilitate the development and deployment of appropriate, context-specific technologies. On the other hand, on-the-ground surveys can be designed to verify remotely sensed data on solar deployment. This is urgently needed in order understand the locked-in and future risks to groundwater reserves.
The humanitarian situation in Yemen is one in which vast numbers of people are in dire need of water and food. This has been created in part by a dependency on diesel for the supply of water, with knock-on impacts for agriculture, livelihoods, purchasing power and food security. The availability of diesel is at the mercy of markets, and supply routes that have been weaponised and attacked during years of war. Solar power – which comes with no ongoing fuel costs, reduces CO2 emissions and supports decentralised energy systems – provides a vital route out of this relationship. But it also comes with significant risks, and these need to be understood and addressed.
Leonie Nimmo is CEOBS’ Project Coordinator and Research Associate and co-authored the report Groundwater depletion clouds Yemen’s solar energy revolution.