Depending on your point of view, the war in Yemen can be explained in two ways. It's a war in which a government that favours the largely Sunni citizens of the former "communist" state of southern Yemen is violently opposed by tribally based Shiites in what was once the independent state of northern Yemen. Or it's a war about national elites battling it out for access to scarce resources in the midst of a population explosion. Regardless of which is true (evidence suggests the latter), there's a war behind the war in Yemen that goes largely unreported.
Yemen has one of the highest birth rates in the world, and remains one of the poorest countries in the Arab world. In 1953, it had a population of 4.3 million people. Today, that number is more than 24 million, with half under the age of 15. Demographers suggest Yemen's population will reach 60 million within the next 40 years.
Yemen has no major industries. It's largely agricultural, with some pastoralism in the eastern desert. Three-quarters of its national revenue comes from oil exports. Yet, experts predict these will be exhausted by 2017, leaving the government nearly broke and unable to invest in rural development.
About 70 per cent of the people live in rural areas. About half of the population is functionally illiterate. Most Yemenis live their lives as members of tribes that follow a customary tribal law system based on mediation and material reparations (livestock and money) that has regional variations. (Yemenis call this blood revenge system tha'r.)
Growing populations and rural conflict over land and water are aggravated by the fact that, although alcohol and drugs are forbidden by the state, Yemenis are addicted to chewing a narcotic leaf called khat, whose production takes up more and more cultivated land in a country dependent on rain-fed agriculture and a medieval form of channel irrigation.
Do-it-yourself tube wells have allowed farmers to tamper with the groundwater, and this is aggravated by the fact that traditional upstream communities have always had the upper hand in water conflicts when it comes to interference with the flow. Add to this the fact that customary tribal law and the national ( sharia-based) inheritance laws create conflict over land and water, as one favours the sons of the man while the other favours the wife's family. This is just one more variable that contributes to widespread rural violence.
It should come as no surprise that there's disparity over how many Yemenis are killed each year. The ministry of justice says the national murder rate is about 1,000 a year. Non-Yemeni water and land experts say more than 4,000 Yemeni men die annually during murderous land and water conflicts; there are, after all, anywhere between 10 million and 15 million guns freely available to male adults. This toll is far greater than that experienced during the current political upheaval. Yemen is running out of water, and water tables are plummeting - experts suggest Sanaa, the capital, may have no water within 10 years.
A typical conflict occurred in 2007, when members of a tribe kidnapped an 11-year-old boy over a plot of land. He resisted and was killed. His tribe refused mediation. Warfare erupted, until the government sent in tanks. Similar events happen regularly all across the countryside, but they're rarely reported on. With rising numbers of murderous conflicts over land and water, tribal mediation takes up more and more time and energy and is often subverted by powerful elites who are either in the national government or have close ties with it.
Yemen is one of the few countries in the world where citizens are reorganizing or revitalizing their tribal structures. Their motto is, "Yemen for the tribes and the tribes for Yemen." But this is really a battle cry for escalating tribal warfare over two rapidly diminishing resources: land and water. As the Yemenis say, " Al-ard 'ard." Land is honour, and they're fighting for it every day.
Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.