Two dead after Yemenis clash over water rights

SANAA (Reuters) - Two people died in a southern Yemeni village where the military intervened to end a dispute over water rights, underscoring tensions sparked by a looming water crisis in the impoverished Arabian peninsular state.

Twenty homes were damaged and unarmed residents were forced to flee Shara’ab, in the southern province of Taiz, during the eight-day stand-off.

A soldier and a local gunman were killed and four other people were wounded in the violence, which ended Thursday after a deal between the authorities and local leaders.

A regional official told Reuters the clashes were sparked by anger over new government regulations on well drilling.

“The people have resisted,” the official said. “This province suffers from a severe water crisis. Our ground (water) wells are almost depleted.”

Troops were sent in after violence erupted over the ownership of a coveted well license and a number of well diggers were taken hostage during the dispute, the Internet news agency al said Friday.

“After a week of blockade, the military operation made no progress until a factional leader offered to surrender himself in return for a military retreat,” the southern website said.

Thursday’s resolution of the clash allowed the faction of one of the local factions to dig a well but it was not immediately clear if the release of the well diggers was part of the deal.

The dispute may have been triggered by the need for water to irrigate qat, a mild narcotic leaf that plays a major role in Yemeni life, with men spending half of their day chewing it, even at work.

Agriculture accounts for over 90 percent of Yemen’s water use, of which 37 percent goes to irrigate qat, researchers say.

Local authorities told Reuters that they provide enough drinking water for the region.

Some experts say Sanaa could be the world’s first capital city to run dry because of a chronic shortage of ground water.

The country’s 21 ground water wells are already failing to meet demand from its 23 million-strong population, which is expected to double in the next 20 years. The problem is particularly acute in cities like Taiz and Sanaa.

The water crisis comes on top of a southern secessionist movement and a fragile truce with northern rebels. Yemen has also come under international pressure to tackle a resurgence of the regional arm of al Qaeda which operates out of Yemen.

But for Yemenis, whose country has a 45 percent poverty rate, water scarcity is quickly becoming a source of violent clashes. Some analysts even suggest “water refugees” may someday flee to neighboring Gulf countries and Europe.

Reporting by Mohamed Ghobari in Sanaa and Erika Solomon in Dubai; writing by Erika Solomon; editing by Jon Boyle