Located in the southwest of Yemen close to the pre-1990 border that once divided the country into North and South, the city of Taiz has long been known for its thriving business and industrial activity. Coffee and qat plantations fill the mountainous surroundings of Yemen’s third-largest city, also home to many of its intellectual figures. But a growing problem—one that is not restricted to Taiz—is disrupting local life: The city’s residents often go weeks without a delivery of fresh water. That’s weeks without water to wash clothes, cook food or supply hospitals; weeks without sufficient access to the single most essential element of life.
Yemen was once revered for its savvy water management and agricultural largesse. But now half of the nation’s 14 aquifers are considered critically over abstracted, and the remaining half are in grave danger of meeting a similar fate.
“At present, the average annual water availability is 85 cubic meters per capita per day, and it is expected to fall to 65 cubic meters by 2025,” says Abdulkhaleq Q. Alwan, principal advisor of Integrated Water Resources Management at Yemen’s Ministry of Water and Environment.
The average Yemeni has access to just 2 percent of what the average person in the world consumes in a year. So for every 10 liters (2.6 gallons) most of us use to fill our kettles, brush our teeth and wash our dishes, Yemenis get a measly 200 milliliters (6.8 fl oz). And if population continues to swell, that share could shrink even further.
In general, cities are hardest hit. Poor urban planning resulted in buildings that smother water catchments, concrete and asphalt prevent healthy water retention, and pollution often sullies what water is available. But that hasn’t prevented rural people from flocking to urban areas in futile search of a better life.
The population of Sana’a has been growing by 7 percent per year over the past decade. That equates to an additional 136,000 people taxing the capital’s already strained water supply and sanitation services. Some now say that Sana’a could become the first world capital to completely run out of water, perhaps in less than a decade. The situation is so dire, many experts predict that a reverse migration to settlements along the Red Sea will eventually become necessary.
Before the early 1970s, when Yemeni men swarmed Saudi Arabia to work newly discovered oil fields, both water management and agriculture were more or less in balance. Different crops flourished in diverse climate zones and divergent (often vitriolic) tribal relations influenced how farms were managed in the North and the South, but Yemenis in general optimized their resources to produce a variety of crops, including coffee, fruit, vegetables, barley and millet. But with the mass exodus of laborers, collective amnesia of sustainable water management gripped those left behind.
At one point, before they were expelled because of then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s support for Saddam during 1990–1991 Persian Gulf War, a million Yemenis lived and worked in Saudi Arabia: a million men that were no longer available to manage carefully cultivated mountain terraces or water harvesting systems perfected over millennia. In their absence, the terraces gave way to water runoff and soil erosion, and attention shifted from subsistence agriculture to “high-value crops” such as qat. Like teenagers who win the lottery, Yemenis dazzled by the extra cash from Saudi began to drill their own wells en masse, most without a license, sucking up precious groundwater at unprecedented rates. Combined with primitive and wasteful irrigation technology, this resulted in an eightfold increase in groundwater extraction between 1977 and 1994, writes Jeff Nugent, a professor of economics at the University of Southern California, in a dated but still relevant historical overview of Yemen’s agricultural policy.
Ask anyone who has even the slightest inkling about Yemen’s water woes and they’ll inevitably make a scapegoat of qat, a mildly intoxicating flowering plant cultivated in the highlands, and with good reason; few tangibles are as obviously destructive to the country’s ecological equilibrium as catha edulis. Once a rich man’s high, the stimulant has become so deeply embedded in Yemeni culture it is unthinkable for a great many people to do without it.
USAID Mission Director to Yemen Herbie Smith calls qat the “gorilla in the room,” adding that cultivation accounts for 50 percent of the country’s water use. “It’s a complex thing to address,” says Smith. “We’ve tried to take a holistic approach, but in reality, it is increasing in use among both men and women.”
Smallholders and bigger producers with access to more land are addicted to the fast money. Whereas most crops are nurtured and then shipped to market over time, qat is sold the same day it’s harvested, while it’s still fresh. There are all kinds of social problems associated with huge swaths of the population—even children—sitting around all afternoon with a big ball of gum and green leaves in their cheeks. Albeit unsustainable and essentially illegal, exploiting this cash crop in an effort to create security amid substantial instability is a perfectly human thing to do. But it’s not smart, and this dubious legacy of water waste will haunt Yemen for many years to come.
Unfortunately, the government has been powerless to motivate meaningful change. Complex cultural dynamics have historically undermined any effort to regulate fragile water resources, since many Yemenis have a greater allegiance to their tribal leaders than the relatively new Ministry of Water and Environment, for example. Water rights registration laws and water user fees implemented in 2013 have had little to no effect.
Abdulkhaleq Alwan, who is also the water sector’s overall Monitoring and Evaluation General Director, is not shy about placing a great deal of responsibility squarely in the government’s lap. “The irrigation subsector, which is responsible for managing irrigation water use that accounts for 90 percent of total consumption, is affiliated to another ministry: the Ministry of Agriculture,” he says. He goes on to hint at another factor that contributes to inaction: corruption. “The high positions in the sector in charge of decision-making and agency leadership are usually [awarded to candidates] based on political affiliation, regardless of whether they have the minimum level of related qualification and experience or not.”
An engineer, Alwan is convinced that nothing short of a complete system overhaul will tackle the looming crisis. “Almost all institutional and organizational frameworks have to be reoriented, upgraded and reformed to match the future new requirements on the central/federal, regional and local levels,” he says.
Especially promising, according to Herbie Smith, was the inclusion throughout the recent national dialogue process of youth, women and civil society organizations, all of which had an opportunity to meet with tribal leaders to discuss the future of Yemen. This is a big deal because these leaders have historically sabotaged efforts to address water issues at either the grassroots or national levels. Referring to the dialogue’s success and its decision to reorganize Yemen as a federal state of six regions, Smith says the country should be really proud of itself. “People rediscovered their tradition of dialogue and discussion, and dealt with a lot of longstanding grievances and issues,” he said.
Federalism or regionalization will produce a more responsive and accountable system at the local level, Smith hopes, though he cautions that regionalization is “not a panacea for the social ills of Yemen.”
Yemen imports up to 90 percent of its dietary staple—wheat—and most pinched budgets preclude sufficient fruits and vegetables. In February, UNICEF reported that chronic malnutrition now affects over 1 million boys and girls under the age of five in the country, and 13 million people lack access to clean water and sanitation. Not surprisingly, Yemen’s economy is also in peril. In 2012, the government spent 3 billion US dollars on fuel subsidies. These enable farmers to purchase diesel fuel, which is necessary to power conventional water pumps. This, in turn, comes with an environmental price. It’s a vicious cycle.
New solutions for a (relatively) new problem
Even as we highlight Yemen’s burgeoning problems, it is essential to focus on the many positive developments taking place below the radar. Since agriculture consumes the lion’s share of Yemen’s water resources, we talked to permaculture expert Geoff Lawton, who is married to a Jordanian woman named Nadia. Together they have taught hundreds of people from the Middle East region and elsewhere about the benefits of permaculture—a holistic, closed-loop agricultural system that works with, rather than against, nature to grow both edible and inedible crops. Both self-sustaining and sustainable, permaculture design treats every site as new, since each will have its own unique set of climatic and soil conditions.
This is important, because the industrial age has given humanity too much confidence in technology. We believe that given the right tractor or the right chemical fertilizer, we can sublimate nature at whim. But it almost never works that way. Tractors break down and fertilizers have their own unwanted side effects. Yemen practiced sustainable agriculture only a few decades ago. That knowledge can be revived, and Geoff is just one person among numerous individuals and groups dedicated to that cause.
With funding secured from Muslim Aid, the Lawtons are working with the respected Yemeni scholar Habib Umar Bin Hafiz and the Dar Al-Mustafa Institute to develop a 500-acre permaculture demonstration project in Wadi Hadhramaut. The flat-topped cliffs of the region drop sharply to the valley floor, which causes rapid runoff or flooding and erosion. During periods of heavy rainfall, people are often swept away by the sudden flooding and drown. In addition to improving safety, Lawton will develop a system that harvests these floodwaters and stores them for year-round irrigation. He also plans to replicate one of his most impressive success stories in Jordan, another country with fierce water shortages.
Lawton also works with Rum Farm in the Wadi Rum desert, Jordan’s largest mixed farm, owned by Saudi Arabia’s Astra Farms. Permaculture Research Institute editor Craig Mackintosh accompanied Lawton during a consultation visit in 2010 and made several insightful observations. “Running large-scale monocrop farming anywhere should be seen as madness,” he writes.
“Here it’s insane. Yet, a large part of Jordan’s food supply is produced at this farm before being trucked north hundreds of kilometers through the desert to the capital of Amman and other centers in refrigerated trucks.”
Relying on conventional agriculture, including expensive pesticides and diesel, the farm was not as productive as it could have been, and its water use needed to be more efficient. Rum’s managing director, Sijal Majali, gave Geoff the opportunity to demonstrate the benefits and efficacy of organic permaculture—which essentially involves no chemical pesticide use—on five hectares in the desert.
Permaculture essentially involves using a biodiverse plant selection to imitate naturally occurring plant growth. Support species are interspersed with sections of crops, in a series of alternating tree/crop corridors, with trellises set in small ditches running through each section and supporting the growth of climbing plants, such as grapes. Taller plants protect more delicate crops from the elements. Using this system, by 2013 Rum Farm—once a barren, forlorn parcel of land—had been transformed into one teeming with supportive and edible plants.
“Permaculture is not metaphysical,” Lawton said in a phone interview with The Majalla. “It’s something you can prove.” Of course, permaculture is more complex than digging up a patch of ground and throwing seeds down. It is a learned system, and permaculture design courses are available throughout the world, including a branch of the Permaculture Research Institute the Lawtons are planning to establish in Jordan. And permaculture is just one of many new approaches to agriculture that have emerged in recent years. Others might include rooftop farming, raised bed farming for areas with contaminated soil, or even aquaponics.
Herbie Smith says USAID is focused on helping Yemen build resilience, a concept that has grown in popularity in the face of global warming, climate change, rising sea levels, food shortages and other environmental problems.
In order to do so, they are experimenting with a variety of projects. In addition to installing 10 productive greenhouses throughout the country, USAID is working with the College of Agriculture at Sana’a University to build a greenhouse facility that relies on solar energy to produce a renewable supply of water to grow crops sustainably.
In nature, diversity is essential. Any ecosystem overburdened with too many of one species will eventually lose balance. Likewise, if Yemen is going to emerge from the giant hole it has carved for itself, it needs to take advantage of every resource at its disposal. Yes, the government needs to overhaul its archaic bureaucracy and tribal leaders should be more supportive, and yes, farmers need to curtail their water consumption in accordance with established laws, but the people sitting around chewing qat, the youth and worried mothers need to be empowered to participate as well.
“In my opinion,” says Alwan, “the proper question now to be asked is this: Can the Yemeni government and the current water sector carry on all the mentioned reforms and restructuring processes within the coming 24 months so that the water sector can adapt with the new, reformed federal state of Yemen?”