Virtue out of Necessity: Yemen’s Lessons on Resilience and Infrastructure Planning

The Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) commissioned commentaries from the Sustainable States project's working group, which consists of environmental analysts and practitioners from the Middle East and North Africa region.

When civil war erupted in late 2014, Yemen’s already unreliable electricity grid quickly collapsed. Sana`a’s water utility struggled to pump groundwater for the 4 million people in the capital, and its residents turned to diesel generators. When the Saudi-led embargo subsequently constrained the supply of fuel, the sun became the energy source of last resort. Sana`a’s new solar installations fit well into the landscape, as shiny rooftop solar units were already commonplace. Households wanting more power used small in-house diesel generators or purchased energy from new neighborhood-based electricity vendors. Nowadays, solar panels are used in pumping stations of utility-held or private water wells, schools, and hospitals. For most Yemenis in the conflict-ridden areas, the central electricity grid is a distant memory.

Yemenis’ ability to adapt is unsurprising. Conflict and necessity often prompt adaptation, self-organization, and vibrant markets for alternative supply. But Yemen’s experience holds more profound lessons. It demonstrates the importance of strengthening adaptations at the local level and harnessing them during the design of new infrastructure. State planners and international organizations looking to rehabilitate Yemeni infrastructure should embed local adaptations into longer-term plans, rather than simply recreating the old and unreliable centralized system.

The Need to Adapt

Yemenis are primarily a mountain people and have learned to adapt and thrive in a rough environment since antiquity. They are renowned for their spate irrigation systems that use springs and divert seasonal floods (sayl and ghayl). In addition, villagers often maintain cisterns, harness rainwater, and collect wood for energy. Despite Yemen’s sprawling cities, around 60 percent of the population still lives in rural areas.

While the Yemeni people showed resilience when conflict erupted in 2014, the country’s infrastructure broke down quickly. Public utilities broadly failed to provide even a minimum of services. Their failure should be concerning for infrastructure planners and aid agencies. Although Yemeni cities have suffered economically, they have been spared the kind of widescale destruction seen in Homs and Aleppo in Syria. The collapse of the infrastructure was a consequence of its over-centralization.

Conflict heightens the perils of centralized infrastructure for basic services. The key balancing act for public utilities is often to provide the continuity of affordable services in the face of shocks and shortages. But in the absence of the state during conflicts, large-scale and highly interconnected infrastructure can become “ownerless.” Centralized infrastructure is also susceptible to cascading effects. For instance, a damaged electrical transmission line does not only shut down the supply of water and wastewater services for a large area. Its effects are felt in hospitals, shops, factories, and in the streets through overflowing wastewater and potentially outbreaks of disease, such as cholera. Without backup systems or interventions by the owner of infrastructure, cascading failures quickly surpass the original disruptions. In such environments, low-income persons are almost never insured. Infrastructure failures claim lives and destroy hard-earned livelihoods.

A Virtue or a New Curse?

Communities in conflict settings often rely on smaller systems that are mobile, less integrated, and maintained locally. With the failure of the state, Yemenis are nurturing their old ways and discovering new alternatives. Well-thought designs can tap into locally available and renewable resources. Solar appliances, home biogas, microscale dams, or barrels for rainwater harvesting can be found in even modest villages. These adaptations have dented the power of public utilities, especially in rural areas.

In Sana`a, international organizations are struggling to know how to deal with the localized infrastructure development, which foregoes the state. They know that Yemenis’ self-adaptations have been necessary to overcome the lack of services, and hybrid and more local systems are promising. Therefore, donors have supported the installation of solar irrigation pumps in rural communities and considered small-scale solar desalination. However, because these microlevel adaptations and donors’ efforts are not embedded within a long-term plan for infrastructure rehabilitation, they can undermine the state and exacerbate inequalities.

Yemen’s experience of self-organized adaptation has been a mixed bag. It demonstrates how resilience is conditioned on locally available resources. Renewable energies are opening many doors, and energy decentralization using microgrids is heralded as very relevant for developing countries. Hybrid infrastructure also includes flexible and utility-driven services, such as water kiosks for potable water or solar-powered water treatment.

However, infrastructure services in Yemen are now fragmented, uncoordinated, and unaffordable for the poor. Electricity from private vendors is 10 times the pre-war, subsidized price under the public utility, and it is even more expensive than heavily taxed prices in European countries. While consumers face an unregulated supply, the warring parties rack up profits from operating large generators, selling diesel on the black market, and trading solar panels. For bottom-up infrastructure construction to deliver optimal coverage and services, the Yemeni state needs to provide guidance and regulations.

Infrastructure planning and rehabilitation are complex, but Yemen’s simple and contemporary lessons are “rethink” and “redesign.” Down the road, after the war and the state building that comes with post-conflict reconstruction, Yemen will awaken to a haunting scenario. An even bigger nation (a population of 30 million, with one of the world’s highest fertility rates) that is poor, unendowed, and underdeveloped. Will there be a government able to connect everyone to central grids and nationally run services? Will these withstand yet another conflict?

Planners can deliberate and implement an array of infrastructure innovations. Yemen’s war demonstrates the imperative to strengthen infrastructure provision and resilience at the micro level. This strategy does not mean to seek simple designs or to favor certain technologies. Rather, Yemen demonstrates that donors and planners must fundamentally rethink how to develop and rebuild conflict-affected states in the twenty-first century.

Dr. Mohammad Al-Saidi is a research assistant professor at the Center for Sustainable Development at Qatar University. He has worked on projects and published papers on Yemen, the Gulf, East Africa, and Jordan on issues ranging from development and the environment to water resources, management, and sustainable transitions. Dr. Al-Saidi is a member of the CSIS Middle East Program’s Working Group for the Sustainable States project.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Mohammad Al-Saidi

Research Assistant Professor, Qatar University