Water fights spark concern over refugee influx

Somali refugee Asmaa Abdullah, 35, and her three children, have been struggling to get water for more than a year in the run-down Safia neighbourhood of the Yemeni capital, Sana’a.

“We arrive at al-Usaimi water tap [supported by a charity] before locals, but are pushed to the end of the queue. Sometimes I queue for three or four hours to fill my container.”

But Abdullah says she dares not argue for fear that she might get beaten up.

Water shortages, which have been worsening since serious political unrest began in February 2011, are causing friction between locals and refugees in Sana’a, according to the police.

“Arguments and scuffles between African refugees and local citizens over water have become a daily scene in this slum [Safia],” said Mohammed al-Behish, head of Safia police station, adding that many water disputes go unreported.

“Last week, a Somali woman came to us, bleeding from her nose, claiming she was beaten up by three Yemeni women. In the same week, a local resident reported to us that his daughter was hit by two Ethiopian women at the tap,” al-Behish said.

The slum-dwellers queue at the tap to get water free: Most cannot afford trucked-in water, the price of which has doubled in the last 14 months, Yahya al-Sanabani, a long-term adviser to parliament’s utilities’ committee, told IRIN.

In Safia, where it is estimated a quarter of the 65,000 residents are Africans, the state water supply system gets cut off for more than 10 days at a time, said Khalid al-Kharbi, a local water company official.

''The worst thing is that these African refugees or immigrants concentrate in densely populated cities such as Sana’a, which is expected to run out of water in less than a decade''

Residents receive water for a few hours every 10 days, al-Kharbi told IRIN. “Many women and children are sneaking into mosques at prayer times to fill their containers,” he added.

Government concern

The government recently expressed concern about overburdened public services caused by the daily arrival of 160-200 refugees and immigrants from the Horn of Africa.

The Interior Ministry said the number of African immigrants and refugees in Yemen exceeded one million, and that more than 50,000 new arrivals, mostly from Ethiopia and Somalia, entered Yemen in the first half of 2012.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), however, put the total number of refugees officially recognized by the government at 220,000.

In 2011, some 75,651 Ethiopians, 27,350 Somalis, and 153 persons from other countries arrived in Yemen by boat, said Edward Leposky, an external relations officer with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Yemen. “This trend has continued in 2012,” he added.

“The worst thing is that these African refugees or immigrants concentrate in densely populated cities such as Sana’a, which is expected to run out of water in less than a decade,” said parliament committee adviser al-Sanabani.

Ame Abdi Shaboo, chairman of the Oromo Refugee Committee, told IRIN that refugees and immigrants from the Horn of Africa have no choice but to head for the cities. “Most of them work as domestic helpers or car cleaners to earn a living; this work cannot be found in rural areas,” he said.

Yemen is one of the most water-scarce countries in the world. A 2012 Rural Water Sector Survey showed that 30 percent of water supply systems were not working, said a report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

“On average, 140 cubic metres of water are available per person per year in Yemen, compared to an average 1,000 cubic metres per person in the Middle East and North Africa region,” it said.

Sana’a has been predicted to run out of economically viable water by 2017.