Tag Archives: Groundwater pumping

Part 2: Texas Panhandle

It struck me the other day that it had been three months since this road trip – and I still had not finished this blog series. I decided to spend the time I would usually spend on my “This Week” posts generating a few more of these.  Look out “Part 3: New Mexico,” coming soon. “This Week” will return in June as “This Month”. Thanks for reading. – M


Population: 27.47 million (2015)

Largest economic industries: (1) Agriculture, [Texas has the most farms of all United States both in terms of number and acreage. Texas leads the nation in the number of cattle, usually exceeding 16 million head. Texas also leads the nation in cotton and pecan production] (2) Aeronautics [Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, the center of NASA, is in Houston.] (3) Defense, [Home to two of the US Army’s largest facilities, Fort Hood and Fort Bliss.] (4) Computer Technology, (5) Energy [Global leader in energy; Oil, gas, and wind.], (5) Tourism [The state tourism slogan is “Texas: It’s like a whole other country.”].


“Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word. And there’s an opening convey of generalities. A Texan outside of Texas is a foreigner.”John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

We spent the night in Shamrock, Texas, a small town off of “Old Route 66” (and very proud of it).

In the morning, the receptionist lets me mail several postcards free of charge and offers to make stronger coffee for the lobby carafe.  Texas and I were off on the right foot – never mind the fact it was freezing cold outside. (Okay, it wasn’t freezing. But it certainly was not a temperature I had anticipated when getting dressed that morning.)



As we reconvened our journey in the daylight, I was awed by the incredible texture that had been added to the environment.  Incremental chasms and cracked pieces of land broke up the endless yellow fields, revealing the deep mahogany hues underneath.



The complexity of the shadows dancing across these formations was captivating. I began to grow a bit anxious, as if afraid that one might pass by without my being able to fully experience it.


But they kept coming. Soon these miniature portraits of dramatic prose became the familiar inhabitants of the space outside my window. After an hour or so, I even managed to steal my breath back from the slim wisps of bright blue water trickling through the broken ground.


I was deeply grateful to have a driving partner. Otherwise, I may have parked along the first one I had seen and spent the day meditating on texture and color. Baby Suggs style.


The wisps of water below fields of brittle grass provide an appropriate metaphor for the current state of water in the Texas Panhandle.


Northwest Texas sits above the Southern-most portion of the Ogallala Aquifer, also known as the High-Plains Aquifer. The Ogallala is the source of water for millions of people in the United States. It also provides 30% of all the water the country uses agriculture. The Ogallala extends as far North as South Dakota, providing water for eight states and can hold as much water volume as Lake Huron. More than 90% of its water is used to irrigate crops.

“It is hard to overestimate the impact that this bounty of buried water has had on American life. If you snack on popcorn or peanuts, you are probably eating Ogallala water; if you dress in cotton clothing, you are probably wearing it. … The fourteen million acres of crops spread across its flat surface account for at least one-fifth of the total annual U.S. agricultural harvest. … If the aquifer went dry, more than 20 billion worth of food and fiber would disappear immediately from the world’s markets.” – William Ashworth, Ogallala Blue: Water and Life on the High Plains.

Nowhere is the Ogallala Aquifer more depleted than in the Texas Panhandle (although parts of Southwest Kansas come close). Water levels have dropped more than 150 feetroughly 70% – since the 1950s. “About half the aquifer’s thickness has dried up” in some parts of Texas, according to Leonard Konikow, a hydrologist with USGS.

The five-year drought that hit the Southern US escalated the depletion rates. Municipalities in the Panhandle turned to groundwater after surface water sources began to dry up and farmers needed to pump more water to compensate for declining rainfall.

The Texas Panhandle once took most of its drinking water exclusively from Lake Meredith. As these sources dwindled in the early 2000s, residents turned underground.

Water levels in the Panhandle dropped 1.87 feet from 2012 to 2013, one of the “five or ten worst drops in the district’s more than 60-year history,” according to hydrogeologist Bill Mullican.

Municipalities in the Panhandle began turning back to Lake Meredith in 2014 after unusually heavy rains filled the once-empty lake with 2.8 billion gallons a water. That may sound like a lot – but it was 4 % of Lake Meredith’s usual haul. Water experts and residents alike were torn. The region had taken six times that amount from the Ogallala in 2013. Where do you turn when there are no good options?


Other residents opposed the return to surface water because low water levels likely meant high levels of sediment. Unfortunately, a 2002 study from the University of Texas at Austin found that groundwater in the Panhandle contains high fluoride, arsenic (linked to pesticides used in cotton production), and nitrate levels and has been contaminated by abandoned oil fields. 


Lake Meredith has continued to recover, but at 24.9% of its former life, it still has a long way to go. Nonetheless, the website of the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife states “that 97% of the area’s water needs are dependent upon groundwater.


https waterdatafortexas.org reservoirs individual meredith.PNG
Source: Waterdatafortexas.org


Much of the depletion in the Southern Ogallala can be tied to agricultural production. Texas produces much of the country’s wheat, corn (for grain – meat production), sorghum (for grain-meat production), hay, pecans, rice, and soybeans. The state’s number one crop, cotton, is a particularly water intensive crop. Texas also leads in beef production, another major water user, particularly when temperatures increase.




[“U.S. could feed 800 million people with grain that livestock eat, Cornell ecologist advises animal scientists.” – That was 1997!]

Farmers here produce food for the entire country and they use a lot of water to do it. In Ogallala Blue, William Ashworth asserts that groundwater mining “is not an accident here; it is a way of life … it is also a way of death.”


Texas is a “right to capture” state. This means that landowners have the right to pump groundwater from wells on their property, “without malice or consideration for the water supply for neighboring wells.”

This approach to water supply fails to take into account that no single well is really an individual source of water, but rather one straw in a larger common source. (In this case, it’s a common source for 97% of the water needs for the region, millions of users to the North, and the food supply for much of the nation.)

The water law system in Texas is further complicated by the division of regulating authority between nearly 100 conservation districts, each with the power to create their own set of rules.


The traditional conception of property rights and local governance that goes along with this type of system is, perhaps, what one might expect to find in Texas. When one buys a piece of land, one buys all of the resources on that land – and, in this case, under it. It is, after all, how the law interprets other resources, such as timber or oil.


Texas tax code further interprets water as a “depleted asset.”

This means, generally speaking, that as a property owner uses the water under their property, the value of their property is declining. Thus, the IRS provides a tax break pegged to the amount of water they have used that year, in order to compensate for the loss of value in their property.

The large amounts of water that one must use to qualify for the tax break likely could only have been used for economic activities. (Ie. agriculture.) The water was a tool used to produce a good which, in turn, produces a profit.

The US government (taxpayers) is (are) effectively subsidizing the water used by Texas business persons (farmers) to produce goods (food). In my opinion, this does not seem to fit into a conservative model of limited government.

It is, however, exactly how the US tax code treats oil and gas resources.

A tax break that pays higher dividends in proportion to the amount of water used is probably not encouraging conservation.



ProPublica has an excellent article explaining the tax break in more detail.  I found this excerpt particularly interesting:

Hasn’t the federal government spent billions subsidizing conservation and the protection of the West’s groundwater, in part by building dams and encouraging people to use the water in rivers instead? Why would they forfeit federal tax dollars to do the opposite?

We called the IRS, and they initially shared our doubts. Not because they cared much about groundwater (it’s a tax agency!) but because they said they were pretty sure no such deduction was legal. They pointed us to section 613 of the tax code, and it couldn’t be more explicit: For the purposes of deducting the depreciating value of minerals, the definition “does not include soil, sod, dirt, turf, water, or mosses.” Ok, who would ever have thought of deducting mosses or sod? But anyway. That left us really confused.

Right, there were, after all, those farmers in Texas who seemed to have benefited from what the IRS said was not possible.

We encouraged the IRS to check again. They did. And then they found the provision they thought didn’t exist — right there in the text for Revenue Rule 65–296. An IRS spokesperson laid out for us the specifics: “Taxpayers are entitled to a cost depletion deduction for the exhaustion of their capital investment in the ground water extracted and disposed of by them in their business of irrigation farming specifically from the Ogallala Formation.”

Seems like some follow-up questions were in order.

For sure. We asked for clarification. The IRS said it would try to explain. Most importantly, they wanted to say it wasn’t quite as crazy as it sounded. The deduction is only available for one small part of the country — an area that includes parts of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado. And it should only apply if people are using water from a source that is running dry anyway.

But wait, what? You get a break when you use resources that are already in danger of vanishing?

Yes, that’s why it is what’s called a depleted asset.

Conservation is precisely what one would expect the farmers to want to do, presuming they would like to preserve their way of life in the Texas Panhandle, for themselves and for their children.




At the same time, their motivations for continuing to over-pump are understandable. It’s the same reason that further evidence of the impacts of climate change motivates apathy, rather than action.

There’s a two-year-old in the back of our minds that’s still there that we’ve learned to overrule that wants to have their one marshmallow now rather than wait for two marshmallows. Very few people on this planet want to destroy planet earth. It’s just that our other agendas get in the way of things that might have a longer time horizon. – Tima Bansal, executive director of the Network for Business Sustainability in London


…and maybe a little bit of all that “manifest destiny.”

Transitioning to “Postdepletion” 

Industrial-scale extraction from the Ogallala didn’t start until after World War II.  For the Texas Panhandle, recent estimates predict depletion will occur around 2050, about a hundred years later. The Ogallala took 10,000 years to fill. Geologists estimate that it will take 6,000 years to refill naturally.

Despite these realities, residents and farmers in the Panhandle resisted efforts to impose pumping limits during the drought. They organized to create a moratorium on enforcing the new water use rules that were passed. These grassroots efforts went so far as to influence the replacement of the general manager and four out of the five board members for the water district.

Other farmers in the Texas Panhandle – and across Kansas – have begun experimenting with dryland farming methods which use only rainfall to produce crops. Several innovative technological practices are being tested in publically funded common agricultural zones. There has been funding to provide and train farmers to use technologies that allow for monitored drip irrigation.

“Agtech is the solution to the Ogallala Aquifer Crisis.” – Hydrobio

The funding of such projects is not without controversy. On one side, the tax base is reluctant to spend money on these programs while many families are struggling with the loss of economic production. On the other, many argue that these projects will not be enough to save the Ogallala and sustainable farming will still need more water than they will have.

Many of these critics are turning away from the idea of “managed depletion” and putting their hopes in an inexhaustible resource – Wind.


It might surprise you to learn that Texas has the largest installed wind capacity (20,320 MW) of any state in the country.


Farmers across the panhandle turned to wind after Texas became the second US state to pass a renewable portfolio standard in 1999. (A renewable portfolio standard is a policy which requires a certain amount of energy to come from renewables.)


Texas also invested in high-voltage power lines to connect the windy regions with its growing cities. Today, Texas has more than double the wind generation capacity of any state and has two projects set to begin construction in the Panhandle.


For farmers, the wind industry offers an opportunity to use their land for a less uncertain purpose.


Texas also has the largest wind industry workforce of any US state.


Wind speeds across the Texas Panhandle average between 7.5 and 9.5 miles per second.

Wind speed.PNG

In December of 2015, Texas set a new record for powering 40% of its electricity with wind power for 17 hours straight.



There are arguments that the federal government ought not to be picking sides in the energy market; that the US taxpayer should not be subsidizing fuel. Yet, this argument overlooks the billions of dollars in tax breaks that the federal government grants the oil and gas industries because their raw product is classed as a depleted asset. The wind cannot offer producers such subsidies.


Does the fact that it can never be depleted make it a less competitive energy source? Not in Texas.


As we neared the New Mexico border, the landscape changed once more. The yellow grass became almost white, interspersed with light greens and small shrubs. The land grew increasingly cohesive and the reddish hues of the Texas dirt softened into a dusty scarlet.



Water had left her mark and the relative difference was striking. I was hooked.

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“I have said that Texas is a state of mind, but I think it is more than that. It is a mystique closely approximating a religion. And this is true to the extent that people either passionately love Texas or passionately hate it and, as in other religions, few people dare to inspect it for fear of losing their bearings in mystery or paradox. But I think there will be little quarrel with my feeling that Texas is one thing. For all its enormous range of space, climate, and physical appearance, and for all the internal squabbles, contentions, and strivings, Texas has a tight cohesiveness perhaps stronger than any other section of America. Rich, poor, Panhandle, Gulf, city, country, Texas is the obsession, the proper study and the passionate possession of all Texans.” – John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

Yemen: The Starving Canary

Yemen’s conflict has deep roots. Unpacking the origins of tensions consuming the country today reveals that these roots are tangled around historical structures of foreign intervention, insufficient resource management, and persistent corruption.

These structures are not unique to Yemen and neither are the consequences.  When one assesses the core of the ongoing nationwide violence, one finds similarly volatile consequences, including widespread youth unemployment, malnutrition, inequality, and water scarcity. [Not to overlook the resulting political rebellions that bring brutal conflicts and mass displacement.]

Yet, such breakdowns in the social fabric of a nation typically arise after ample warning periods of unrest and desperation. The tipping point comes only after failings to address core problems have caused the consequences to intensify. A crisis is often required to stir any international action. Yemen’s conflict exemplifies this phenomenon.

The crisis in Yemen is one lacking in any neat delineation between the “right” side and the “wrong” side. The conflict does not easily fit into the romantic “good vs. evil” narrative that many in the U.S. associate with foreign wars.  This is one reason why the conflict is poorly understood and significantly underreported. The lack of understanding and attention has provided actors the space to take extreme measures without significant public outrage.

While Yemen is, in more ways than one, a place of extremes, the seeds from which the current conflict developed are planted around the world.

The following will seek to challenge the mainstream narratives often used to explain or justify the Yemeni conflict, to unpack the nuances of the tensions and isolate the root causes.  Better understanding the origins of Yemen’s current crisis will lend a note to the urgency of addressing similar structures present all around the world.

This is a long one. For a lighter read – stick to the bold text.

Source: Google Maps

Misleading Generalization #1: Yemen is a poor and backward country, incapable of ensuring its own security.

Yemen is definitely poor. Prior to the 2014 conflict, it was the poorest country in the Middle East, with a poverty rate of more than 50%.  Yet, Yemen was ranked 154 on the Human Development Index (HDI), a composite statistic of life expectancy, education, and per capita income indicators. In other words, the Yemeni people were slightly better off than those in Afghanistan (171), Zimbabwe (155), or Uganda (163), and slightly worse off than those in Pakistan (147) or Papua New Guinea (158). Perspective is always useful.

But, why is Yemen so poor?

The persistence of extreme poverty among the Yemeni people has been linked to mismanagement of resources, government corruption, and persistent civil wars.

Yemen was the seventh most water-stressed country in the world before the 2014 uprising. Lack of effective governance and economic planning led to the persistence of wasteful irrigation practices and the rise of water-intensive qat crops. (Qat is a mild narcotic.) As a result, Yemen was using 90% of its water for agriculture and importing 75-90% of its food supply. 

Yemen has seen its water resources decline dramatically (in quantity, as well as quality), and the country’s dependence on food imports meant people were hit hard by climate change events around the world – most notably the 2010 drought in Russia. Also in 2010, experts began predicting that Yemen could be the first country to run out of water, betting the capital would run dry by 2020.

Is it really poor resource management if Yemen’s water scarcity is all about geography? 

The Ma’rib Dam. (Date unknown) Source

In fact, Yemen has a rich history of agriculture and water resource management. The kings and queens of Saba – or Sheba (Bible), or Balqis (Qur’an) – built the Ma’rib Dam around 940 BC to mitigate seasonal flash floods surging down the valley. The dam provided irrigation for roughly a millennium. The Sarawat mountains attracted consistent precipitation and the territory was one of the most fertile on the Arabian peninsula. The mountain sides were terraced to provide further irrigation for the northern highlands. For centuries, the peoples of Southern Arabia managed an agricultural economy with rainwater and surface resources.

Yemen’s current lack of resource management can be traced to endemic government corruption and the government’s focus on persistent uprisings. This World Bank blog and this CNN Op-ed discuss the networks of corruption that have become embedded in Yemen’s institutions and describe the degree to which these networks have impacted Yemen’s socioeconomic development. 

Impacts such as a steadily growing GDP alongside an unemployment rate that hovered above 17% from 2010 to 2014, and a tumbling investment rate (7.8% of GDP in 2014).

MENA expert Abdulwahab Alkebs told the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 2010 that a major challenge to combatting corruption in Yemen was the “inevitability mindset.” “(M)any citizens feel as though they are powerless to do anything about it.”

…because Yemen has always been this way? 

Yemen is one of the world’s newest countries and is only 27 years old – but large settlements have existed in the mountains of northern Yemen since 5000 BC.  Yemen (or Southern Arabia, at that time), was given the name Felix Arabia (Fortunate/Happy Arabia) by the Romans. Yemen was at the crux of international trade and was the world’s only provider of coffee beans until the 19th century. The successive dynasties of Southern Arabia were known for their trading strategy, their infrastructure, their treatises, and their Queens. Dynastic turbulence occasionally gave way to periods of stability, usually based on a delicate balance of regional autonomy.

How Yemen’s rich past evolved into such a conflicted present is unavoidably nuanced and subjective. The remainder of the article will shed a bit of light on this trajectory and you can draw your own conclusions.

As for Yemen’s need of external support to ensure national security…

The societies Southern/Felix Arabia had a reputation for holding off attempted invasions; successfully thwarting attempts by the Romans, the Ansku (an ancient Christian civilization in modern Ethiopia), and the Byzantines – just to name a few. 

Most intransigent were the northern Zaydi tribes, who frustrated Ottoman rule – with varying degrees of success – throughout Turkish colonization.  Zaydi pressure influenced the Ottoman exit in 1918. The British invaded Southern Yemen during the 19th century when the city of Aden was the third busiest port in the world. The British were forced out of the country in 1967 by Marxist tribes in southern Yemen.

Since the creation of the Yemeni state, threats to government have come almost entirely from within. The military strength of those groups mentioned above has been focused in opposition to the Yemeni government. The Saleh government responded to challenges to its legitimacy with a “divide-and-conquer” strategy, increasing internal instability. 

In 2009’s “Operation Scorched Earth,” after six progressively brutal wars against the northern Houthis in five years, Saudi Arabian forces assisted the Saleh government.

Against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemeni government has not had success on its own. (Although, the Houthis have.) The United States began to fight AQAP during the “War on Terror.”

Misleading Generalization #2: The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have long been Yemeni allies.

The U.S. has been engaging in drone warfare in Yemen since 2002. Yemen became part of the “War on Terror” after the USS Cole bombing in the Port of Aden in 2000. (The USS Cole was on its way to enforce UN sanctions on Iraq.) As part of the effort against AQAP, the United States gave the Yemeni government nearly $1.7 trillion in military aid from 2000 to 2014. Theoretically, this aid would have ceased had the Government eliminated AQAP (or Ansar al-Sharia, as they are locally known) entirely.  Nevertheless, in 2013 Yemen’s parliament held a nearly unanimous vote to end US drone strikes in the country after one hit a wedding convoy. The president continued to allow the strikes. 

According to a UN report, US drone strikes in Yemen have killed more civilians than members of al-Qaeda. Image Source: CNN

The role of the United States in Yemen extends beyond the drone wars and AQAP.

After the Southern Marxists expelled their British colonizers, they formed the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) in south Yemen and received substantial support from the USSR. The US then began to support North Yemen, which became the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) in 1970.

The House of Saud has been seeking to influence the territory south of its border since the successful war against (northern) Yemenis in 1934.  Conflict over the terms of the resulting treaty (namely, the degree of Yemen’s independence from the Saudis), led to an eight-year civil war in northern Yemen. This time the Saudi-backed royalists fought against republican forces, and they lost. The republican government ruled for only four years before military forces seized control. In 1978, Ali Abdullah Saleh, a former military general, was officially elected leader of YAR – with U.S. backing.The civil war marked the end of northern Yemen’s long history as a self-sufficient food producer and a net exporter of agricultural products.

Although Saleh is a member of the Zaydi sect of Shia Islam, his government received aid and maintained trade with (Sunni) Saudi Arabia. It was in the kingdom’s interest that the north was able to defend itself against the Marxist south (yet, not strong enough to threaten the Saudis themselves).

The YAR received modern drilling technology and pumps, financed by Yemen’s expatriate labor force in the Gulf countries. This led to an unprecedented and uncontrolled increase in groundwater development, for both private and government uses. Studies confirmed the rapid depletion of groundwater resources. Successive attempts to introduce water resource management began around 1980. The first signs of the adverse effects of the mismanagement of water were becoming in apparent in the northern highlands, as springs and shallow wells dried up.

A few years later, Yemen found oil. Amid drying wells and drought – which hit the region in the 1970s – their new cash crop required significant amounts of water.

[At its peak, Yemen produced 450k barrels of oil a day in 2003.]

In the early 1990s, the two Yemens united under the northern leadership as the USSR began to collapse.   Unification had previously seemed unthinkable, as the two sides had been engaged in consistent conflict for more than a decade. Saudi tensions with the Yemenis increased after unification, despite the dominant Safi’i sect of Sunni Islam within the population southern Yemen.

Volunteers who had been trained by the US to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan moved into Yemen around this time.  A jihadist presence established itself in the Southern Arabain territory for the first time in its history.

The US continued to ally itself with the Saleh government, which now controlled united Yemen. In 1993, the country became the first in the Arabian Peninsula to hold multiparty elections under universal suffrage. Fifty women ran for office and two won seats in the new government.

The General People’s Congress, Saleh’s party, has dominated the political scene since the 1993 election, often through questionable tactics. Saleh was directly elected president of unified Yemen for the first time in 1999. His opponent was an obscure member of his own party, whose election expenses Saleh paid for. Saleh won with 96.3% of the vote. The most recent parliamentary elections, which were set to take place in 2009, were postponed – twice. (They have yet to take place.) The Saleh administration was charged by numerous rights groups as running a corrupt and autocratic government.

The central government experienced a chronic lack of authority and influence outside of the cities. Rural tribal networks across the country have charged the administration with neglecting their communities. A southern secessionist movement fought a civil war against the central government in 1994. As a concession, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who was from a southern province, was appointed Vice President.  In the north, the Houthi’s and other tribes have charged that Saleh is too closely allied with foreign powers. Saudi Arabia fueled this unrest with the construction of Salafi – the sect of Sunni Islam practiced in the kingdom – madrassas in traditionally Zaydi regions in the North.

In 2009, Saudi Arabia’s effective campaign against al-Qaeda pushed the group across the border into Yemen.  The Yemeni and Saudi arms merged to form al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Saudi Arabia’s influence in Yemen culminated in the brokering of Saleh’s removal from power after a youth-led Arab Spring protest grew into a fierce conflict. Yemen’s numerous opposition groups seized on the momentum of the protest and united against the Saleh government. Following nearly a year of conflict, Saleh stepped down after 33 years in power. The ‘GCC Agreement’, as it came to be known, was signed in Riyadh and established an interim government led by former Vice President Hadi. Hadi was officially elected in 2012. Hadi was the only name on the ballot.

The GCC Agreement also created a National Dialogue, which brought together 565 delegates to create a new constitution and system of governance. The US and the UN were involved in ensuring the Dialogue took place after it was delayed in 2012.

When a coalition of opposition groups took the Presidential palace by force in August 2014, Hadi fled Yemen to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia began airstrikes in Yemen in March 2015. On March 26th, Saudi Arabia imposed a de facto naval blockade on the ports of Aden and al-Hudaydah. Saudi forces, along with Emiratis and Bahrainis, have also undertaken a ground war, moving North from Aden.

[The body which has – arguably – been the best ally to Yemen since Hadi fled the country, has been its own central bank. The Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) held out neutrality for over a year, despite substantial pressure from both sides, to keep the country’s currency afloat. In early 2016, Saudi forces dismantled CBY and started a new one in Aden.]

Misleading Generalization #3: The US is supporting Saudi Arabia’s support of the Hadi government in Yemen’s civil war. 

The US continued to carry out drone strikes – against AQAP – after the closure of the US embassy in February 2015. Special forces operations (training Yemeni military units) were removed in March 2015. The Saudi air campaign has reportedly destroyed military installations belonging to US-trained Yemeni counterterrorism units.

Why is the US involved in Yemen’s civil war at all?

Saudi Arabia has a lot at stake in Yemen’s civil war and the US-Saudi alliance was on rocky ground following the Iran deal. The US wants to secure Saudi’s continued support against ISIS. The security of the Bab el-Mandeb, a chokepoint between the Arabian and Red Seas which transports roughly 3.8 million barrels of oil per day, as well as the desire to have a government in Sana’a that cooperates with US counterterrorism programs, are also likely considerations. The current US President’s business ventures in Saudi Arabia could be another motivating factor.

So why does it a big deal that the US is aiding its ally?

The Saudi coalition, which includes Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Sudan and the UAE, has brought a viciousness to this war far beyond what could be called “business as usual” in international conflict. One could argue that the butchery of ISIS or the mercilessness of the Assad regime have normalized such brutality today.

The difference is the role of the United States – not to mention the United Kingdom and France. The U.S. has sold at least $2.44 billion worth of weapons to the kingdom since November 2015, including internationally criminalized cluster bombs (Progression of the decision to continue selling such weapons to the kingdom here: FP -> ABC -> NYT), and $33 billion to all the Gulf countries combined.  The US has also consistently provided intelligence and airplane refueling.

Us-made cluster bomb dropped on the capital of Sa’na in January 2016. Image Source: Middle East Eye

Inside Yemen, British, French, American, EU, Dutch, German, Japanese, Turkish, and GCC states are among those to have closed their embassies. The only individuals from the US or the EU collecting on-the-ground analysis are humanitarian and human rights workers. Several of these individuals reported in October 2015 that the one thing all sides in Yemen agreed upon, was that the US had no role to play in this conflict.

Humanitarian organizations have continuously called on the US to stop the fighting by ceasing the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia.

The Obama administration attempted to distance itself from the coalition’s methods. In April 2015, senior administration officials said they had pressured Saudi leaders to “wrap-up” their air campaign.

Meanwhile, the suffering in Yemen is immense.  One of the first measures that the Saudis took in Yemen was a legally questionable blockade of several key Yemeni ports. The blockade has effectively cut off the population from food and fuel imports. The UN reported that only 1% of the monthly fuel requirements were entering the country by September 2015, down from a 12% low in August. Fuel is necessary for cooking, transporting the wounded, powering generators at hospitals, and for pumping water. “I honestly don’t know how to describe in words how desperate the situation is in Yemen,” says Kristine Beckerle, a Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It’s a step away from famine.”

Famine is defined as “extreme scarcity of food” or “a situation in which many people do not have enough food to eat.The UN reported that 21.2 million people—four out of five Yemenis—need some form of humanitarian assistance; among them, 7.4 million have severe food insecurity and a total of 14 million – half of the Yemeni population – are experiencing some type of food insecurity in which they do not have enough to eat.

Yemen is experiencing nationwide famine.

Amid starvation, Saudi-airstrikes routinely target civilian infrastructure with US weapons, including farms, food storage silos, water wells and distribution facilities, and other transportation infrastructure, making what resources remain available in Yemen impossible to mobilize. Airstrike data compiled by the Yemen Data Project shows that the Saudi-coalition has repeatedly prevented the delivery of humanitarian aid and, perhaps of most concern, has consistently targeted hospitals. Hospitals that were already under-resourced before the conflict and are now extremely limited in their supply of medicine, water, and fuel. Doctors without Borders were forced to pull out of northern Yemen in August 2016, after UN peace talks failed and the coalition resumed bombing civilian targets.

The UN has designated the humanitarian emergency in Yemen to be as severe and complex as those in Iraq, South Sudan, and Syria. BBC has produced a short video on the human cost of Yemen’s war.

[The remarkable lack of coverage for the Yemeni situation is likely attributable to the cultural disinclination and the geographical difficulties preventing Yemenis from fleeing their country. The UN has reported that 2.4 million Yemenis were internally displaced by March 2016, while only  170,000 have fled. Almost none have gone to Europe or the US. VICE produced a short video report on Yemeni refugees in Djibouti.]

In January 2016, the UN estimated that 60% of the civilian casualties that had occurred since March had been caused by air strikes, a capability which only the Saudi-led coalition has.

Other actors, including the Houthis, have also targeted civilians and violated international law. But the US is not supporting these actors with intelligence and international lobby-power. For example, the US blocked a proposal in the UN Security Council sanctions committee to have the chair “approach all relevant parties to the conflict and stress their responsibility to respect and uphold international humanitarian law and human rights law.” The proposal also called for all actors to cooperate with investigations into potential human rights abuses in Yemen.

[The UK may not be so well insulated. After approving £3.3 billion of military sales to the kingdom, the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) has brought charges against the UK, accusing the state of violating international law. CAAT has been awarded judicial review and the case began in the High Court of London in February 2017.]

While the US may be able to maneuver awacmc003_yemen-casualties-infographic-final_499x353y from UN investigations into violations of international law, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) told Foreign Policy that the weapons sales may violate legislation he authored, known as the “Leahy Law,” which bars the United States from providing security assistance to countries responsible for gross human rights abuses.

“The humanitarian crisis in Yemen has received too little attention, and it directly, or indirectly, implicates us.” Sen. Leahy supported legislation cosponsored by Sen.’s Rand Paul (R-KY) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) in September 2016, which aimed at halting the most recent weapons package of $1.5 billion weapons sale to Saudi Arabia, until an investigation of the conflict could take place. The joint resolution was brought to a vote in the Senate and failed to pass. When asked about the legislation, Sen. John McCain told the Washington Post that Sen. Paul “has a fundamental misunderstanding of the entire Middle East.”

In October 2016, the US directly bombed the Houthi militants for the first time, as limited retaliation measures for two strikes aimed at US warships from Houthi-controlled territories. These strikes missed their target. The United States has billed the missing of their warships as the difference between their own “limited retaliation” and going to war with the Houthis. Yet, the Saudi offensive against the Houthis would not be possible without US support, raising the question of what it means to be at war.

There’s an American imprint on every civilian life lost in Yemen,” Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy told CNN’s, Jake Tapper. “Though the Saudis are actually dropping the bombs from their planes, they wouldn’t be able to do it without us.”

Source: VICE News

Misleading Generalization #4: The Yemen conflict is a fight for power, between Hadi and the Houthis, between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and between Sunni and Shia.  

At an Atlantic Council event, titled  “Challenges to the Yemen Peace Process,” the permanent representative of Yemen to the United Nations, H.E. Khaled Alyemany, told attendees that Yemen’s civil war was, fundamentally, a war for power. His remark did not go unchallenged by his fellow panel members.

Although power plays a role in nearly every conflict, plugging the events in Yemen entirely into this lens risks resolving the violence in the territory without addressing the conditions that originally led to rebellion.

Corruption, water scarcity, inequitable resource distribution, weak institutions, and consistent foreign interference, have inspired rebellions in Yemen since it became a state in 1990. A peace treaty that only addresses the distribution of power will, like the GCC Agreement before it, fail to bring peace to the Yemeni people.

Who is fighting in Yemen now – and why? 

The Hadi administration was overthrown by a coalition of opposition forces that the Houthis had been pulling together throughout the National Dialogue process.  The government fell and the Houthis stepped in to fill the power vacuum, angering the other factions that had joined them in storming the Presidential Palace.  Although the Houthis stated that they were interested in forming a new National Dialogue to discuss transitional governance methods with the other factions, most did not believe the Houthis would actually share power. By seizing control of Yemen, the Houthis lost the support of much of the country. Now, civilian militias in most towns have begun to fight the Houthis.

[These civilian militias are well-armed, as Yemen has the second-highest ratio of small arms per person in the world. – The US is number one. – Also, civilian militias across the country have been fighting the Yemeni army in rebellions since unification.]

Who are the Houthis? 

The Houthi movement emerged in the late 1990s, in opposition to the establishment of Salafi madrassas in traditionally Zaydi areas. The Salafi ideology is an ultraconservative reform movement within the Sunni sect of Islam and is concentrated in Saudi Arabia. The Houthi movement has its origins in Shabab al-Mumanin (or ‘the Believing Youth’) – a modest summer school program that used videos and cassette recordings to promote Zaydism among literate northern youth, who had begun to step away from their ancestor’s religion.  The Houthis have been the recipients of what Dr. Charles Schmitz of the Middle East Institute, a think tank in Washington DC, calls “intense negative propaganda.” It is worth checking out Dr. Schmitz’s overview of their rise to power for a more comprehensive understanding of a movement that has evolved dramatically.

The Houthi’s are part of the Zaydi school of Islam, which has deep roots in Yemen, first establishing a coastal dynasty that stretched from Haly (present-day Saudi Arabia) to Aden in 818 AD. In 897, the first Zaydi Imam in Yemen established the Zaidi Imamate in 897, which stretched across the northern highlands. Zaydi imams ruled the northern highlands for over 1,000 years before the last Imam was overthrown in 1962. 

The Zaydis are centrists in the Shia tradition of Islam. A common saying in Yemen describes the Houthis as “the Sunnis of the Shia, and the Shia of the Sunnis,” suggesting the differences between the Zaydi and the Sunni are relatively small. The Zaydi and the Shafi’i, the sect of Sunni Islam practiced by the majority of the Yemeni population, are reported to have shared mosques and intermarried throughout modern history. Today, Zaydis are only found in significant numbers in Yemen.

The Houthi movement grew as the northern tribes felt increasingly neglected by the Saleh government following unification. Rapid groundwater depletion in the highlands led to supply shortages in major cities, abandonment of agricultural grounds, and widespread conflicts over water. An estimated 2,500 people died each year as a result of water-related conflicts. “In no country in the world is the rate of exhaustion of aquifers proceeding so fast.” Water insecurity and poor water quality increased across Yemen – but the highlands were impacted the hardest.

The movement became active in national politics after 2003, when Saleh supported the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Ansar Allah, the Houthi’s political party, was formed. The movement became increasingly militant. The Houthis fought six wars against Saleh between 2004 and 2010. 

It is important to point out, that not all Zaydis are Houthis, not all northerners are Zaydis (although the majority are), and not all northerners supported these wars.

Sa’na marketplace in northern Yemen. Source.

During the most brutal of these conflicts, “Operation Scorched Earth” in 2009, the Houthis siege on Sa’dah brought Saudi Arabia into the war to support Saleh. It is an open question as to which side started the conflict. A ceasefire was agreed upon in 2010. Yet, the underlying causes of the conflict, namely, poverty and marginalization, were not addressed in any meaningful way. These conflicts left the Houthis battle-hardened and well-practiced in military strategy.

The Houthis participated in the National Dialogue in 2013, despite consistently criticizing the process. In the end, the Houthis had no representation in the resulting transitional government. They made known that they “saw no difference” between it and the government that had fought against them. The Houthis had been building their strength since the 2011 protests fractured the military. They continued to do so throughout the Dialogue.

Foreign Affairs reported that 70-80% of the conflicts in rural regions during this time were water-related. The Interior Ministry raised the death count for water and land related disputes to “about 4,000” each year. (That’s 35 times the number of casualties in the deadliest al-Qaeda attack ever to occur in Yemen.)

[In the eighth episode of Showtime’s “Years of Living Dangerously,” NYT’s Tom Friedman visits Yemen and speaks with leaders about escalating local water conflicts.]

Then, in July of 2014, under pressure from the International Monetary Fund, Hadi lifted national fuel subsidies. Fuel is crucial for pumping groundwater and without the subsidies, many poor Yemenis were left in an increasing state of lack. The Houthi’s organized mass protests. Hadi’s government and the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated party organized counter rallies. In August 2014, less than eight months after the National Dialogue had dissolved, the coalition the Houthis had brought together took the Presidential Palace by force.

Since seizing power, the Houthis have committed numerous human rights violations, including the siege on Aden and Taiz, as well as the recruitment of child soldiers.

And what about AQAP?

Al-Qaeda was the first enemy of the Houthis to begin packaging this conflict as Shia vs. Sunni, a framework which the Saudis and the US have also advanced. By framing the conflict as an ideological one, AQAP has swelled its ranks – because a majority of Yemenis are Shafi’i Sunnis. AQAP has expanded its territory into western Yemen. By April 2016, they had established what Reuters called a ‘mini-state,’ spanning over 350 miles of coastline. It is likely that it is the success of al-Qaeda that has drawn the new US administration into Yemen with such urgency.

The Houthi’s power-grab, their subsequent rapid advances, and the devastating impacts on the cities they held early in the war have caused numerous tribal groups, who are otherwise opposed to AQAP, to join forces against the Houthis. The US has been reported to have worked with AQAP to push back Houthi forces, as has Yemen’s own army.

The Iranian angle

Hadi and Saudi government officials have also stoked the sectarian narrative, consistently asserting the role of Iran to be an absolute reality. Yet, there has not been any substantial evidence to prove this claim. Many regional specialists and human rights organizations have repeatedly warned against overstating Iran’s influence.

Iranians and Houthis adhere to different schools of Shia Islam, with Iranian regime adhering Twelver Islam. The Iranians and the Houthis do share the common goal of countering Saudi dominance. 

The Iranians have done little to counter the perception of their influence in the Yemeni conflict, openly celebrating the Houthis success.  The Houthis’ political arm Ansar Allah, has recognized itself as part of “the Iranian orbit” – but that does not lead directly to taking orders or point to a causation of success.

The argument is made that it would not be possible for a small tribal force to overthrow a democratically elected government and to continue fighting such a drawn-out war, without substantial backing from a regional power.

Arms shipments on a boat sailing from Iran, which were seized by the US Navy in April 2016 in the Arabian Sea, were likely meant for the Houthi fighters. The extent of material support is unknown, as is the origin of any support within Iran.  Regional experts have said outright that any material support “is not the decisive factor in the Houthi’s success, which comes from the weakness of the state institutions, internal rivalries which the Houthis’ have exploited, common frustration against the elites, and years of practice fighting the government.”

Thomas Juneau, from the University of Ottawa, has conducted an exhaustive survey into Iranian involvement in Yemen, which he concluded to be no more than small weapons shipment and limited deployment of advisers. “There is no evidence, in particular, suggesting that the Houthis have become dependent on Iranian assistance, or in any way fallen under Tehran’s authority.”

However, the levels of violence and brutality within the conflict, alongside the success of AQAP, are actively increasing the sectarian angle.

Saudi Arabia and the Future Yemeni Government 

The more resources and time the Saudis put into the conflict, the more they have to lose. And the more they will expect from Yemen. It is unlikely that Yemen could ever rebuild without assistance – especially after the dismantling of the central bank. It is likely that the Saudi’s will be there to provide such aid. But they have not yet retaken the country. The Houthis still hold the capital.

In the beginning, some segments of the Yemeni population, particularly those besieged by the Houthi forces in the cities of Aden or Taiz, perceived the Saudi coalition as their hope for liberation. Now, many Yemenis believe that it benefits the Saudis to drag the war on, causing incredible amounts of damage to the country’s economic infrastructure.

Nadwa Al-Dawsari conducted over 160 interviews with Yemeni people as part of her research for the Center for Civilians in Conflict in late 2016. She has reported that the people of Yemen view the UN peace talks with resentment. Many believe that these talks are being conducted by elites who have neither an understanding of nor concern for the conditions in Yemen which sparked the unrest. “They extremely distrust actors who are currently involved in the talks – all actors… They feel these actors are only interested in negotiating power, at the expense of Yemenis… Civilians felt that these actors do not represent them.”

Yemen: The Forgotten People

Dr. Nabeel Khoury, who spent twenty-five years in the US Foreign Service and specializes in the Middle East, asserts that the US never choose a “Yemen-First” strategy. The foreign policy of world powers, the US in particular, is driven by the national interest of the country developing the policy – and that interest is often defined in the short term.

But does this really suit any nation’s interest when the greatest challenges – climate change, radical extremism, mass migration, and virus outbreaks – are global?

In 2015, amid airstrikes and siege, two tropical cyclones hit Yemen in a span of ten days, including the first hurricane-strength storm to hit the country in recorded history. Heavy rains fueled the breeding of unusually large populations of desert locusts, threatening further agricultural devastation. A new approach to international diplomacy, one focused on long-term systematic goals, could empower the development of satellite monitoring systems and regional disaster response mechanisms. Such systems would protect millions from these increasingly regular events while saving enormous amounts of capital in humanitarian aid, redevelopment, and economic losses. 

This may seem so far out of reach for nations steeped in tribal conflict and famine. But Yemen’s potential to be our ‘canary in a global coal mine,’ is because the deepest roots of this conflict can be traced to the foreign policy strategies of other countries. These strategies were repeated in many countries besides Yemen. These strategies are still used by global powers today. Other causes of Yemen’s crises can be found in the domestic policy of other nations, including the uncontrolled use of groundwater and dependency on food exports. 

At some point, international diplomacy must be more than reacting to crises, especially if the externalities of these reactions only serve to birth future conflict, and perpetuate societies raised on violence and dirty water. 

A new approach could prioritize the development of basin-wide transnational integrated water resource management strategies (and preemptive water conflict resolution mechanisms,) by ensuring local access to digital monitoring networks and strengthening local capacity to utilize such networks. Such steps could allow communities to monitor not only their water but also their food supply.

If international diplomacy focused on long-term goals that serve the interest of humanity, conflicts such as Yemen, which introduced grave national security risks, including strengthening AQAP, could be prevented before they begin.

The US has no place in Yemen’s civil war. But we can learn from it.

More of the same will only bring more of the same.