The British-Yemeni Society

News and events


Journal articles

Book reviews

About the Society

Society officers

Annual reports


Annual appeal



Water, Yemen and the English Speaking Union 

The English Speaking Union (ESU)’s 26th International Public Speaking Competition for young people was won last year by an eighteen year old Yemeni, Ali Hussain Saleh Muhammad. The Competition, which began in 1981 with just three participants, has expanded over the years, and in the 26th Competition held in 2007 some 60 young people from 34 different countries took part. The final stage of the Competition was held in May 2007 at the US Embassy in London. Later in the year Ali Hussain returned to London to receive his certificate from HRH Prince Philip, President of the ESU, at Buckingham Palace. 

Ali Hussain’s winning speech was entitled ‘Planning for aWorld with LightWater’, the text of which is reproduced below: 

Yemeni tradition teaches that, when Noah’s sons left the ark, each went his separate way. Sam ibn Nuh, or Shem, journeyed to a fertile plain surrounded by mountains. There he built Sana’a, the world’s first city and the capital of Yemen. Sam chose the area because it was relatively dry, or a place ‘with light water,’ as the story goes. And who can blame him after what he’d  been through. Today Yemen is drier than ever and is running out of fresh water. As a result, its agriculture and people are in danger. 

Yemenis are not the only ones facing water shortages. The whole Middle East is running out of fresh water and that might not surprise most of you here who think of the Middle East as a vast desert. What may surprise you however, is that safe, potable water is growing scarce all over the world. Many Chinese are moving from ancestral farms because their rivers are drying up. Indian farmers compete with factories for irrigation water. Japan’s water is becoming more and more polluted, and Australians and Americans are using up water faster than rainfall can replenish it. 

These are facts about the world’s water: 

• Seventy percent of Earth’s surface is water, but only 3 percent of that water is fresh water. 

• More than 75 percent of the fresh water is frozen as glaciers in the Antarctica, Greenland and the Alps. 

• Less than one-half of one percent of Earth’s water is available for drinking and irrigation. 

• About 1. 1 billion people lack safe drinking water, and as a result 5000 children die each day form waterborne disease. 

There are some natural causes that can’t be helped such as the uneven distribution of water around the world, but the major culprit is humans. The same amount of water, which supplied the world population of one billion in 1804, must accommodate 6 billion people today. Not only do 6 billion people drink more water, but they also eat more food, which requires more water to grow. Agriculture accounts for 80 percent of the water used today. In my country, 50% of the water used in agriculture doesn’t go to the food we eat; it goes to a plant called Qat, that Yemenis traditionally chew, which is very tragic. Humans also clear more trees, which are essential to the water cycle that replenishes fresh water; and they generate more waste, which can pollute the water. Inadequate sewage systems in many Asian, African and south American cities contribute to water scarcity by polluting the water. In addition, many governments do not repair the old pipes or build the new infrastructure needed to distribute available water. Poor people in slums around the world are forced to buy their water by the bucketful and carry it home. They pay 5 to 10  times what the wealthy in the same cities pay for water. 

What are some just and equitable solutions? 

One is conservation. Many individuals squander a litre of water for every millilitre they use. Cities can be just as careless. According to the World Water Foundation, daily leaks from London’s ageing water pipes could fill 300 Olympic-size pools. Replacing old water pipes secures a city’s water future. 

Another solution is protecting the environment. Wetlands and forests help preserve and replenish fresh water. Their destruction is a sure path to water scarcity. Global warming also threatens our water supply. Higher temperatures evaporate the water in rivers and lakes. Also, if the ice caps melt and the oceans rise, salt water will spill into rivers and lakes and make the water undrinkable. So we must reduce air pollution to halt global warming. 

A third solution is innovation. Engineers and scientists must develop crops that require less water, fertilizers that cause less pollution, and irrigation systems that cut out waste. They must also come up with more energy efficient ways to desalinate seawater 

A fourth solution is investment. Today many countries spend less than one percent of their national income on water. Increased spending on water distribution and sewage treatment could save the lives of almost 2 million children each year. 

In summary, the world is facing a scarcity of fresh water. This problem endangers our food supply and children’s lives. But people can still preserve those blue lines and blobs that represent rivers and lakes on the map of the world. They can do so through conservation, investment, protection of the environment, and innovation. 

In a way, the world is Noah’s Ark, and we are its crew. But our mission is different from Noah’s and his sons. We must keep the water flowing to keep our boat afloat. 
Ali Hussain Saleh Muhammad collects his certificate from HRH Prince Philip.  Courtesy: davidcavill/eventphotography

The Editor is grateful to the ESU for providing the information on which the above account is based. 

Vol 16. 2008