Reform in Yemen: Progress and Obstacles
Yemen is a country facing substantial problems. It is one of the most undeveloped, poverty stricken countries globally. Basic services are scarce, and corruption is rampant. Half of Yemen’s 20 million citizens are under 15. High fertility rates and early marriage mean the population will double within decades. Oil, a mainstay of the economy, is rapidly depleting. Both illiteracy and unemployment are high. International donors and many within the Yemeni administration recognize the urgency of the issues facing the nation. However some governmental strategies are undermined from within the regime itself. Both water management and corruption mitigation efforts have been limited by the failure of ministries to coordinate among themselves.
Yemen is among the most water scarce nations globally. In rural areas where most Yemenis live, only 37% have access to clean water, and women often spend several hours daily procuring water. Potable water is available in 58% of urban areas, but supplies are erratic. Public water is piped into Taiz and some other urban centers once every forty days. Citizens pay for water from private wells, a burden considering the average annual income in Yemen is about only $500,
Water scarcity takes an enormous human toll. One in ten Yemeni children dies before their fifth birthday. Water borne diseases (diarrhea, typhoid and malaria) are the cause of half of those deaths. A 2005 Parliamentary report stated 75 percent of all Yemenis face health risks from dirty water. Water is also a flashpoint for violence. Taiz residents held street protests demanding water which resulted in clashes with security forces in 2006. A 2006 study by the Civic Democratic Initiatives Support Foundation found water related issues are a contributing factor in 80% of tribal disputes that result in violence.
As tragic as these figures are, the harsh reality is that water availability is diminishing at an exponential rate. Underground water levels are dropping by several meters each year. Contamination of ground water and haphazard well digging exacerbate the crisis. Water usage significantly exceeds replenishment of aquifers. Yemen may run out of water within decades. Urgent action is needed, and Yemen has devised an excellent water strategy. At a cost of $300 million dollars per year, donors include The World Bank, Germany and the Netherlands. However, the legislation has not been implemented since it was devised in 2005. Donors may withdraw financial support unless tangible results are forth coming.
One problem is the lack of coordination among governmental authorities. The seven percent of water used by households is controlled by the Water Ministry. 93% of all water is used for agriculture and its usage falls within the domain of the Ministry of Agriculture. In an interview with the Yemen Times, Yemen’s Minister of Water, Abdulrahman Alaryani, noted that the Ministry of Agriculture’s Investment Program for Public Management of Irrigation runs counter to the National Water Strategy, “They are still focusing on agricultural expansion and demand in land dependant on underground water and on building small dams whose economic potential is limited. Their concern with the rational usage of scarce water resources is rudimentary at best.” There are 80,000 artesian wells in Yemen, and the inability to effectively police the random digging of wells in Yemen was another issue Alaryani addressed.
Another urgent issue facing Yemen is rampant corruption. The Yemeni government has taken some important steps to combat corruption like signing on to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative as well as issuing a new law controlling government tenders. A cabinet reshuffle in 2006 was a good step in establishing discipline within some ministries. However, the Civil Service Ministry, like the Water Ministry, is unable to fully implement a progressive plan without intergovernmental cooperation.
The Civil Service Ministry identified thirty thousand civil servants who receive more than one government salary. It devised a matrix of structural and organizational reforms to eliminate these “double dippers” as well as “ghost workers”. Once payroll lists have been cleaned up, the Ministry will authorize overdue pay raises. Doctors are threatening to strike if the raises are not forthcoming immediately. The Health Ministry has said the reforms are complete. However, an audit found that the doctors’ payroll list still contains the names of dead people, retired people, and some who are out of the country. Doctors’ frustration is growing as the raises are well past due; however the obstacle to the raises is the Health Ministry’s lack of compliance with the reform measures.
Irrational and contradictory policies arising from weak institutions and fragmented authority limit the effectiveness of administrative reform in Yemen. Programs that have been instituted to work in the long term interests of the Yemeni public will necessarily undermine centers of profiteering that are often associated with public power derived from the ruling party, tribal authority, security forces, and the military. A counter-weight in favor of reform has been achieved through the collaborative effort of those reformers within the administration, civil society, parliament, political parties, the media, public, local bodies and donor community. These progressives have already harnessed sufficient momentum to enact some authentic reform initiatives. However overcoming resistance to reform in Yemen remains a daily and urgent challenge.