On the brink of a water crisis in Yemen

01 September 2014
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IN SANA’A, the capital of Yemen, groups of women and children gather at public fountains in town squares every morning. They fill plastic canisters with water, then transport them home on pushcarts. The fountains are currently the only source of potable water for most residents of Sana’a, where only 20 percent of households receive piped water. The city, perched in the mountains in Yemen’s west, is among the areas worst affected by a water shortage that plagues the entire country. Sana’a’s water table stood at just 30 metres below the ground in the 1970s; today, it has dropped to almost 1,200 metres in some areas, and the streams and aquifers feeding the city continue to dry up.

Among the causes of Yemen’s looming water crisis are rapid urban development, the unregulated drilling of wells, and the cultivation of khat—a lucrative shrub whose leaves are widely consumed as a stimulant, and which has dominated local agriculture for the last decade. Almost 90 percent of the country’s water is used for small-scale farming, and about half of that for cultivating khat. To add to the pressure, Yemen’s population, the poorest in the Arabian peninsula, is expected to double to almost 48 million people by 2035.

Matilde Gattoni’s richly detailed photographs of Yemen’s capital and countryside capture this stark reality. The relentless sun—a recurring visual theme in the Italian photographer’s previous work from West Asia—beats down on people both at work and at leisure, though mostly the former. Gattoni’s subjects bear heavy canisters, travel along desolate roads carrying bags, and toil to grow and harvest khat. Even among those at rest—a group of men smoking hookahs on a rooftop, or a man sitting on a riverbed beside his scythe—there is a sense that life in this environment is devoid of much comfort.

Matilde Gattoni Matilde Gattoni is an award-winning photographer. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Der Spiegel, The Observer, the Financial Times, The Guardian, the New Yorker, Time, Vanity Fair and many other publications. Her book Uzbekistan:10 Years After Independence, was published in 2002, in collaboration with the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid.

Keywords: urban development Yemen Sana'a Water crisis