Thomas Friedman: Postcard From Yemen

Al Qaeda is like a virus. When it appears en masse, it indicates something is wrong with a country’s immune system. And something is wrong with Yemen’s. A weak central government in Sana rules over a patchwork of rural tribes, using an ad hoc system of patronage, co-optation, corruption and force. Vast areas of the countryside remain outside government control, particularly in the south and east, where 300 to 500 Qaeda fighters have found sanctuary. This “Yemeni Way” has managed to hold the country together and glacially nudge it forward, despite separatist movements in the North and the South. But that old way and pace of doing things can no longer keep pace with the negative trends.

Consider a few numbers: Yemen’s population growth rate is close to 3.5 percent, one of the highest in the world, with 50 percent of Yemen’s 23 million people under the age of 15 and 75 percent under 29. Unemployment is 35 to 40 percent, in part because Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states booted out a million Yemeni workers after Yemen backed Saddam Hussein in the 1990 gulf war.

Thanks to bad planning and population growth, Yemen could be the first country to run out of water in 10 to 15 years. Already many Yemenis experience interrupted water service, like electricity blackouts, which they also have constantly. In the countryside today, women sometimes walk up to four hours a day to find a working well. The water table has fallen so low in Sana that you need oil-drilling equipment to find it. This isn’t helped by the Yemeni tradition of chewing qat, a mild hallucinogenic leaf drug, the cultivation of which consumes 40 percent of Yemen’s water supply each year.

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