Sana'a could literally run out of water by 2017. And so far, very little has been done

Yemeni capital Sana'a is on track for a highly dubious honor: experts say it may become the first waterless capital city.

A deeply poor and divided country, Yemen has been over-drawing from its aquifer for years. To make matters worse, the city's population is growing at 7 percent a year. And qat, a mild narcotic that requires significant irrigation, is the main cash crop.

Government environmental efforts have failed to catch on thanks to a lack of funding and attention. Though the city saw record rain fall this summer, it was unable to harvest that water into anything usable.

Experts say that the city could run out of water as soon as 2017 if nothing is done.

In America, cities have successfully leveraged ad campaigns and peer pressure to encourage residents to use their water more judiciously. In a city where resources are impossibly tight, what can be done to encourage more sustainable living?

Like other governments in the Middle East, Yemen is so unstable that it struggles to plan for even imminent crises, never mind a potential catastrophe years down the road.

"Yemen is so poor," says Karin Kloosterman, founder and editor of Green Prophet, which reports on environmental issues in the Middle East. "People don't always have the luxury of thinking about sustainability when they're trying to put out fires."

This is true across the region. Kloosterman notes that there are sustainability efforts springing up in different cities. But they are led mostly by young, Western-educated citizens, not the government.

In one example, Young women in Saudi Arabia launched a recycling campaign. In another, developers in Cairo came together to find solutions to the city's own imminent water shortage. Just this week, entrepreneurs organized a conference called DESERTEC to discuss creating a renewable energy grid in North Africa.

Part of the challenge, Kloosterman says, is that Middle Eastern societies tend to be more conservative and face basic challenges that western activists don't have to worry about.

But regional environmentalists are finding ways to make the movement relevant to them, she says. In some places, activists link sustainability to the fight for more basic rights like clean water and health. Some feminists have turned going green into a broader push for women's rights.

The women see "they can use sustainability for social change and for improving their conditions," she says. 

In some places, the most effective strategy has been linking green pushes with more engrained traditions. For the first time, some activists released a Green Guide to Hajj, which outlines ways a pilgrimage to Mecca can be more sustainable. This comes on the heels the first-ever light-rail system to Mecca.

"Islam is starting to much more readily adapt these ideas of environmentalism," Kloosterman says. "The message is 'loving God is congruous with loving the planet.' I think that's very powerful."

About the Author

Amanda Erickson

Amanda Erickson is a former senior associate editor at CityLab. 

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