For months, citizens of this war-torn country have been terrorized by bomb explosions and mortar attacks. Now another threat is growing, which could be just as deadly.
Yemenis are running out of water.
This poor Arabian Peninsula country has faced a severe scarcity of water for decades. But four months of fighting have dramatically worsened the situation, with attacks destroying water pipes, storage tanks and pumping facilities.
The number of Yemenis who lack access to drinking water has almost doubled since the war began, according to the United Nations and aid agencies. Now, they say, more than 20 million people — about 80 percent of Yemen’s population — struggle to find enough water to quench their thirst and bathe.
Diseases such as malaria are spreading, killing hundreds of people, because so many residents are forced to use improperly stored and unsanitary water, health experts say. The crisis is compounding a humanitarian emergency that already has prompted U.N. officials and aid workers to warn of famine.
If the shortages aren’t alleviated soon, there could be large-scale epidemics and many more deaths, said Ahmed Shadoul, the World Health Organization’s head of mission in Yemen.
“We expect a lot of people to die if the water situation remains unchanged,” Shadoul said. Many Yemenis are so desperate for water that they bathe with a damp cloth. During storms, people crowd the streets to catch rain in buckets.
Being bald has become more popular, but not as a fashion statement. “People are shaving their heads because they don’t have enough water to wash their hair,” said Mubarak Salmeen, 58, who lives in Aden with his wife and five children.
This country has long experienced water shortages because of rapid population growth, a dry climate and government mismanagement of the water system. Not helping the problem is a national obsession with a drug called khat. Huge amounts of precious groundwater have been diverted to cultivate the plant, the leaves of which are chewed by millions of Yemenis for its stimulant effect.
In recent months, an escalation in fighting has led to unprecedented disruptions in accessing water.
Air raids, shelling and ground assaults have destroyed water infrastructure. In the southern port city of Aden, home to roughly a million people, most taps have run dry.
“The water situation is a disaster,” said Najib Mohammed Ahmed, director of Aden’s water and sanitation authority.
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