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Friday, May 8

Al Qaeda's Water Politics

Hadi, Yemen's President in Exile:  Stupidest National Leader in the Galaxy 

From Yemen Is Tearing Itself Apart Over Water by James Fergusson; Newsweek; January 20, 2015

Al-Qaida has a long track record of exploiting sectarian differences. In Yemen, though, it has developed another, more surprising, method of winning tribal hearts and minds: its members have become champion exploiters of the country's chronic water shortage. The country is one of the five most water-stressed in the world, with just 86 cubic metres available per capita per annum, according to the World Bank. (Even drought-prone Somalia has 572 cubic meters available per capita. The UK, by contrast, has 2,262 cubic metres.)

In regions south and east of Sana'a, where many communities have been ignored for years by the central government, AQAP has won significant support not just by providing villagers with water, but also by helping them to dig wells and install other vital water infrastructure. 

Sharia, the Islamic law that al-Qaida is determined to impose, means, in one of its many possible translations, "the path to the water hole" – a metaphor for spiritual salvation with obvious appeal to followers of a religion that originated in the Arabian desert. AQAP is trying to make that metaphor a reality.

This activity goes far beyond social work. In an impoverished farming nation, where over half the population still lives off the land, access to water, and the ability to irrigate crops, is often a matter of life or death. Even government officials estimate that local disputes over land and water already lead to 4,000 deaths every year.

Sana'a is badly affected, too. Supply is already so poor here that municipal taps function on average only once a month. Its 2.6 million residents have long relied on rooftop cisterns filled with water expensively tankered in from elsewhere. 

According to a study commissioned by the World Bank, the city could be unsustainable as soon as 2019. Unless action is taken soon, Sana'a's residents may be forced to leave the city to wither and die. The wars of the future, it is often said, will be fought not over oil but over water. Yemen offers us a glimpse of the coming apocalypse.

Worse, AQAP is looking to export its water "weapon." In a document discovered by the Associated Press in 2013, addressed to AQIM (al-Qaida in the Maghreb), AQAP suggested trying to win locals over "by taking care of their daily needs like water. Providing these necessities will have a great effect on people, and will make them sympathise with us and feel that their fate is tied to ours."

AQAP has identified the provision of water and its infrastructure as a key means of doing this. 

The United States' former Enemy Number One in the region, the Islamist ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed by a US drone strike in 2011, was the holder of a BSc in Civil Engineering from Colorado State University.

AQAP may also have learned from the mistakes of other AQ franchises, such as their neighbours in Somalia, al-Shabaab. The greatest reversal suffered by that organisation came during the southern Somali drought of 2011, which it dealt with by asserting that it existed only in the minds of Western propagandists. Refugees fleeing the drought zones were ordered to return to their homes and to pray for rain. Tens of thousands died as a consequence, and popular support for al-Shabaab collapsed.

Wells, Not Drones

The Sana'a government is miles behind AQAP in its appreciation of the problem. A new strategy for managing the nation's dwindling resource is urgently needed. At the National Dialogue Conference, Yemen's tiny, beleaguered community of hydrologists lobbied hard for their sector to be made a priority – but in this year's spending round, the budget of the ministry of water and environment's National Water Resources Authority (NWRA), was cut by 70%. 

As Najib Maktari, a senior ministry adviser, put it: "It shows you how little importance Hadi attaches to the sector."

The vast majority of the government's resources is spent on the military, as it has been for years. There are over 400,000 men under arms in Yemen fighting Houthis in the north, separatists in the south, and al-Qaida just about everywhere.

They are aided in this last campaign by US drones – though the Yemeni government does not have its own drones, it is widely believed to provide American drone operators with target intelligence. In fact, Yemenis have judged their president such an enthusiast for drone strikes that he has long been nicknamed "Drone al-Hadi." 

The results of these policies, very much abutted by the strong Western support of al-Hadi's government, have ranged from ineffective to catastrophic.

Mohamed Ali al-Gauli is a schoolteacher from the remote mountain district of Khawlan. His brother and cousin were killed in a US drone strike while driving in their car and, as a reminder of the tragedy, he keeps a scrap of tailfin, complete with American markings, from the missile he holds responsible for the deaths. His brother and uncle, he insists, had nothing to do with AQAP. Their mistake had been to pick up four armed hitch-hikers in the course of a routine shopping trip.

As in Pakistan and elsewhere, the accuracy of the drone strikes used in Yemen has been called into question. A recent study by Reprieve, the New York–based human rights group, which was widely circulated on Yemeni social media, suggested that strikes aimed at 17 named men have so far killed 273 people, at least seven of them children; while at least four of the targets are still alive. 

"You know, those drones are very expensive," Al-Gauli observes bitterly. "Yet in our village, it takes a 2km donkey ride to fetch water from a well. If someone spent a tenth of the cost of a missile on a well for our village, maybe no-one would pay attention to al-Qaida and they would go away."

Much more in the article, which should be prize-winner, but the rest is about Yemen's specific water issues.

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