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Country profile - Yemen


In response to increasing security concerns, an international meeting was held in London, in January 2010, to discuss the considerable economic, social, political, environmental and security challenges facing Yemen. Despite its oil reserves, which provide about 90 per cent of the country's exports, high levels of poverty (40 per cent) and unemployment (35 per cent) make Yemen the only low-income country in the Middle East. At the same time, Yemen's oil reserves, on which its economy currently depends, are predicted to run out within the next ten years.

Water is another finite resource that requires urgent attention: with groundwater resources rapidly depleting, Yemen's greatest environmental challenge is water scarcity. Yemen already has one of the lowest rates of per capita water availability in the world, estimated at about two per cent of the world average. Due to the rapid depletion of groundwater resources, the water table is falling by about two metres per year, constraining agricultural production and causing chronic water shortages. Periodic droughts and desertification, coupled with a shift from food production to cultivation of cash crops, are also impacting agriculture.


Sana'a could become the first capital city to run out of water (©FAO/Rosetta Messori)
Sana'a could become the first capital city to run out of water
©FAO/Rosetta Messori

About 90 per cent of Yemen is classed as arid, semi-arid and desert. In the east, the Rub al Khali, or 'Empty Quarter', is one of the largest sand deserts in the world, and receives almost no rain. It is inhabited by nomadic Bedouin pastoralists, who rely on trading of camels and goats. The Tihama coastal plain consists of sand plains and dunes, interrupted by wadi flood plains which are exploited for cultivation. In the western highlands, which receive the highest levels of rainfall, traditional terrace cultivation dominates the landscape.

After oil, the fisheries sector is Yemen's greatest revenue generator. Fish production in the last two decades has greatly improved due to government subsidy programmes to provide artisanal fishermen with boats and fishing gear, and construct roads, ports, and cold storage and processing facilities. But destructive fishing practices and rising numbers of illegal fishing vessels are depleting resources.

Livestock are a primary source of income for smallscale farmers, particularly sheep, goats, cattle, camels and poultry. But a lack of water, fodder, veterinary services and the prevalence of pests and diseases, including Peste des Petits Ruminants (PPR), Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) and Rift Valley Fever (RVF), have hindered livestock production. The presence of disease also prevents access to international markets.

Once self-sufficient in cereal crops, Yemen now imports over 75 per cent of the country's food. More than 70 per cent of the population live in rural areas but only three percent of Yemen is considered to be arable land. Traditionally famous for coffee, the main cash crop is now qat, a mild stimulant regularly chewed by about 70 per cent of Yemeni men. Sorghum, maize, millet and pulses are the main food crops.

Running dry

Qat production has almost doubled in a decade (©FAO/F. Mattioli)
Qat production has almost doubled in a decade
©FAO/F. Mattioli

Water scarcity is Yemen's main constraint to food production. Almost 90 per cent of water use is for agriculture, and a large proportion of this is due to inefficient irrigation techniques and the expansion of qat cultivation, which alone accounts for 30 per cent of water use. Six times more profitable than most food crops, and relatively easy to cultivate, qat cultivation has expanded at the expense of food crops, contributing to the dependence on food imports. At the same time, the mildly narcotic leaves account for up to 30 per cent of household expenditure, ranking second only to food for many poor people.

Due to its profitability, year-round cultivation and high domestic demand, qat production has almost doubled from 80,000 hectares ten years ago to roughly 145,000 today. In the Sana'a Basin, qat production occupies half of the irrigated land. Without any groundwater regulation, qat farmers are able to pump water freely to irrigate their plants.

Water is being extracted from the Sana'a basin four times quicker than it is being replenished and, with a population growth rate of seven per cent, Sana'a could become the first capital city to run out of water. In response to growing water scarcity, the UK's Department for International Development (DFID) has been funding water harvesting projects in Sa'adah province where, in the village of Al-Qatab, a 4,300 cubic metre capacity cistern, hand-pump and precipitation tank have provided this mountain-top community with a reliable source of water.

International interventions

Rehabilitating degraded terraces helps to conserve soil and water resources (©FAO/Rosetta Messori)
Rehabilitating degraded terraces helps to conserve soil and water resources
©FAO/Rosetta Messori

Rapidly declining reserves of oil and water require urgent efforts to diversify the economy, improve the management of natural resources and increase agricultural production and productivity. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) is working with farmers to help them conserve their soil and water resources through terrace rehabilitation, wadi bank protection and improving irrigation systems. Activities such as milk processing and beekeeping are enabling farmers to diversify their agricultural production and improve processing and marketing systems.

At the conclusion of the January international meeting in London, international and Arab countries pledged to increase their support to Yemen, with renewed commitments from the government to implement economic and social reforms. But, while countering terrorism may be the overall aim, improving agriculture, on which half the population depends, will be vital in tackling poverty and ensuring long-term stability and security.

Statistical information
  • Country: Republic of Yemen
  • Capital: Sana'a
  • Area: 527,968 sq km
  • Population: 23,822,783 (July 2009 est.)
  • Population growth rate: 3.5% (2009 est.)
  • Life expectancy: 63 years
  • Ethnic groups: predominantly Arab; but also Afro-Arab, South Asians, Europeans
  • Languages: Arabic
  • Inflation: 19% (2008 est.)
  • GDP purchasing power parity: US$55.41 billion (2008 est.)
  • GDP per capita: US$2,500 (2008 est.)
  • GDP composition by sector: agriculture: 10%; industry: 57%; services: 33%
  • Land use: arable land: 2.91%; permanent crops: 0.25%; other: 96.84%
  • Major industries: crude oil production and petroleum refining; smallscale production of cotton textiles and leather goods; food processing; handicrafts; small aluminium products factory; cement; commercial ship repair
  • Agricultural products: grain, fruits, vegetables, pulses, qat, coffee, cotton; dairy products, livestock (sheep, goats, cattle, camels, poultry); fish
  • Natural resources: petroleum, fish, rock salt, marble; small deposits of coal, gold, lead, nickel, and copper; fertile soil in west
  • Export commodities: crude oil, coffee, dried and salted fish
  • Export partners: China 28.4%, Thailand 23.6%, India 16.1%, South Africa 13.4%, Japan 4.7% (2008)

Date published: March 2010


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