Population Matters

Yemen, Population and Failing States

December 30th, 2009

The news this week that the 23-year-old Nigerian man accused of attempting to detonate an explosive on an international flight into Detroit may have had ties to an al Qaeda group operating out of Yemen is generating concern about the growing internationalization of terrorism.   Experts worry that al Qaeda is expanding its operations to Yemen, Somalia and other failing states in the region.

The link between failing states and terrorism is well understood. Less understood is the connection between population growth and failing states.

Most failing nations have high population growth rates. Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace publish an annual ranking of failed states. All of the top ten countries in the 2009 Failed States Index have total fertility rates (the average number of children born by a woman over her lifetime) substantially higher than the global average (2.6). Six of them had TFRs of 5.0 or higher.  The Population Reference Bureau estimates Somalia’s TFR at 6.7, Afghanistan’s at 5.7, and Pakistan’s at 4.0.

Nations with high fertility rates tend to have a large percentage of young people. Demographers call this a “youth bulge.” Security analysts warn that large numbers of unemployed young men in developing countries can destabilize a poor, developing country.  A few years ago, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, who was the Director of the CIA at the time, gave a speech at Kansas State University, in which he focused on this concern:

Today, there are 6.7 billion people sharing the planet. By mid-century—by mid-century, the best estimates point to a world population of more than 9 billion. That’s a 40 to 45 percent increase—striking enough—but most of that growth is almost certain to occur in countries least able to sustain it, and that will create a situation that will likely fuel instability and extremism—not just in those areas, but beyond them as well.

There are many poor, fragile states where governance is actually difficult today, where populations will grow rapidly: Afghanistan, Liberia, Niger, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That group—the population is expected to triple by mid-century. The number of people in Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Yemen is likely to more than double. Furthermore—just beyond the raw numbers—all those countries will therefore have, as a result of this, a large concentration of young people. If their basic freedoms and basic needs—food, housing, education, employment—are not met, they could be easily attracted to violence, civil unrest, and extremism.

Yemen, which is grabbing the headlines this week, has a TFR of 5.5.  With a current population estimated at about 23 million people, its population could easily exceed 50 million by 2050.  But will Yemen, which is already one of the poorest and most arid countries in the world, be able to sustain itself?

The Arab Human Development Report 2009, released this year by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), gives a grim assessment of the challenges facing Yemen and other states in the Middle East. Independently authored by Arab scholars, the report concludes that human insecurity in the region:

….is heightened by swift climatic changes, which threaten the livelihoods, income and access to food and water of millions of Arabs in future. It is reflected in the economic vulnerability of one-fifth of the people in some Arab states, and more than half in others, whose lives are impoverished and cut short by hunger and want. Human insecurity is palpable and present in the alienation of the region’s rising cohort of unemployed youth and in the predicaments of its subordinated women, and dispossessed refugees.

The government of Yemen, which is currently fighting a major insurgency in the north, faces perhaps the gravest challenge in the region.  Yemen in recent years has suffered from severe drought; water shortages are acute.  A 2005 report on Yemen’s water problem found that:

Groundwater resources are vital for Yemen’s agriculture. For their recharge they depend mainly on spate running water and rainfall. Runoffs and springs in catchment’s areas are the main sources of groundwater recharges. In Yemen, the estimated groundwater is around 1000MCM, which makes the total renewable water resource sum 2.5 MCM, while the total demand is estimated to be 3,400MCM with 900MCM deficit, which is covered from deep aquifers.

Ground water aquifers decline 1-7 meters annually with very rare recharge. This raises the cost of pumping and causes a deterioration of ground water quality including sea (salt) water intrusion in the coastal plain areas. Some basins have become very dry and some cultivation has been uprooted due to the depletion of the ground water which is highest, up to 6m per year, in the north side of the country (Sa’adh basin). The drillings then went deeper up to 800 m depth.

A World Bank report released earlier this year projects that Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, could run out of water within 15 years.  Conservation measures could postpone the day of reckoning, particularly as about 40 percent of available water is consumed by the cultivation of qat, a narcotic stimulant.  But with climate change, a rapidly growing population and high rates of unemployment, Yemen is a humanitarian disaster in the making.  And Yemen’s problem could quickly become a major problem for neighboring Saudi Arabia and the fight against terror.

Yemen, however, is just one of many failing states in the world whose resources are being outstripped by population growth.  In virtually all these states, the status of women is low and the rate of domestic violence is high.  Unless more attention is given to educating girls, elevating the status of women, and giving them the information and ability to prevent unwanted and unintended pregnancies, these states will remain on an unsustainable and dangerous trajectory.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

For more information on population and failing states, see our fact sheets page.

One Response to “Yemen, Population and Failing States”

  1. Min Lee Alexander Cambridge Says:

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