Alarm bells over water in Yemen
First Published 2008-08-23
Water situation worsening in Yemen in absence of effective strategy to manage its use.
SANAA - Water availability in Yemen has been worsening by the year and the government has no clear strategy on how to deal with the problem, experts have said.
They say water shortages, which affect about 80 percent of the country’s 21 million people, are exacerbated by the high fertility rate, rapid urbanisation, the cultivation of `qat’ (a mild narcotic), a lack of public awareness, and the arbitrary digging of wells.
The experts made the remarks at a symposium on 12 August in Sanaa city organised by the Sheba Centre for Strategic Studies (SCSS), a local think-tank. Entitled Water Security in Yemen: Challenges and Solutions, the symposium brought together dozens of local officials and experts on water.
Khalil al-Maqtari, an official at the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation and an expert of topography, said the water situation was worsening as there was no effective strategy to manage its use.
"The total amount of water used annually is 3.5 billion cubic metres (cu.m.), of which 93 percent is used in agriculture, 6 percent in households and 1 percent by industry. The renewed fresh water is 2.5 billion cu.m. per year. The gap between used water and renewed fresh water is 1 billion cu.m. a year," he said, adding that 4.6 billion cu.m. would be required in 2025 as by that time Yemen's population will have doubled.
Al-Maqtari said per capita use was 125 cu.m. per year and that by 2025 this would drop to 62.5 cu.m a year. Globally, average per capita water consumption was 1,500 cu.m. per year, he said.
"About 92 percent of Yemen's land is arid, semi-arid and desert," he said.
Deep wells to blame?
Nasser al-Awlaqi, a professor of economy and a former minister of water, said the water crisis in Yemen was largely due to agriculture, which depended on ground water from deep wells.
He said farmers used to make do with surface water and rain, not ground water, but with the introduction of appropriate technology, they began to dig wells. "Before 1970, there were no wells 800 metres deep. They were manually dug and their depth was only 20-40 metres," he said.
Al-Awlaqi said the expansion of agriculture began in the 1990s after the government benefited from foreign loans and Yemeni expatriate fund transfers.
Exacerbating the problem was the additional demand caused by an influx of some two million Yemenis who had worked in the Gulf States but returned to Yemen after the 1991 Gulf war, he said.
Arbitrary digging of wells meant water could be found at depths of 800-1,000 metres, he said. "Influential figures are digging wells in Sanaa city, with the Ministry of Water unable to do anything to stop them. The Water Law is not being implemented," he said.
The law forbids arbitrary digging and requires prior permission from the ministry.
"In 1974, the area irrigated by ground water was 30,000-35,000 hectares. But now over 400,000 hectares is irrigated by ground water. At that time, Yemen produced 1.2 million tonnes of cereals but now production has dropped sharply as agriculture is not fed by rain," he said.
According to Al-Maqtari there are over 60,000 wells and over 350 water drillers nationwide, and the rate of water level-diminution in these wells was 6.3 percent per year.
Al-Awlaqi said most farmers still used a traditional irrigation method known as “flooding”; only 8 percent of cultivated land was irrigated by modern means. "And this further depletes ground water," he said.
Participants said farmers are not able to make use of the large quantity of rainwater - 68 billion cu.m. a year - due to the ineffectiveness of dams. Al-Awlaqi said dams were built arbitrarily and were not practical. "Very few were built adequately. Dams are not looked after and most of them have been filled with filth. US$22 billion was spent on dams. But their capacity is only 80 million cubic metres (mcm). Yemen is a poor country but its resources are wasted," he said.
He went on to say that there are dozens of studies on water that cost millions of dollars but they have gathered dust on shelves. "Some are too old to be used. These studies were also not accessible to researchers," he said.
"We must create public awareness on the problem of water, which everybody should understand".
According to the experts at the symposium, another factor that further aggravates water shortages is urbanisation. Most people in Yemen are concentrated in the highlands in the northern part of the country.
Al-Awlaqi said the Sanaa basin could dry up in 15 years due to the constant migration to it. "In the Sanaa basin, 250 mcm of water is used per year, but it is fed by 60 mcm a year. So there is a shortage as well as acute diminution of Sanaa basin's water. In a few years people will be using only the renewed water [rainwater] - 60 mcm," he said.
He said desalination in Sanaa was impossible as Yemen's resources were limited and even talk about this alternative was not logical. "How do we want to benefit from desalinating sea water when it will immediately be used to irrigate `qat’?," he said.
Mohammed al-Dubaei, a professor of geology, said there was a need to reduce Sanaa city's two million population by half, or to 800,000, in order to confront the water crisis in this city. "Sanaa city cannot stand rapid urbanisation," he said.
Participants suggested that the cost of living in Sanaa should be made higher in order to stop internal migration to it.
Ali Saif Hassan, head of SCSS's political forum, said the government should lift the subsidies on oil derivatives, including diesel which is used by farmers. "The government pays US$3 billion a year for such subsidies. Diesel represents 80 percent of `qat’ cultivation costs. If the subsidies were lifted, then no farmer would be able to cultivate qat," he said.
Participants also suggested that increased Yemeni imports of ` qat’ from African countries over the next five years could reduce the area used for `qat’ cultivation, and hence water consumption.
They said two leading bottled water companies based in Sanaa were depleting ground water resources. They not only supplied Yemen with bottled water, but also some neighbouring countries, the participants said.
Al-Qa'ida in Yemen: We'll Avenge Soon
Written by The Media Line Staff
Published Thursday, August 21, 2008
Al-Qa'ida in Yemen earlier this week confirmed the killing of a local leader, Hamza Al-Qa'iti, in confrontations with security forces in Ha'dramawt Governorate, the Yemen Times reported.
Al-Qa'iti, who masterminded several terror attacks in recent years, was killed along with four other Al-Qa'ida members on August 11, the organization announced on a website affiliated with it.
"We pledge to carry out a revenge operation soon," the online proclamation warned, adding that eight Yemeni soldiers were killed during the August 11 clashes, not two as stated by the government.
Eight Al-Qa'ida members were arrested in the past few days in two separate operations in Ha'dramawt.
Following the security raids it was reported that Yemen had extradited to Saudi Arabia eight Saudi nationals suspected of planning attacks in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. It was not clear whether the eight were the same ones arrested in Ha'dramawt.
The Yemeni security forces recently uncovered plots by Al-Qa'ida to strike at targets inside the country and in neighboring Saudi Arabia, Yemeni President 'Ali 'Abdallah 'Salih announced last week.
Following recent advances in Yemen's war on terror, the United States ordered the return of non-essential government staffers to the local embassy within the next few weeks.
The curse of Yemen
Yemenis' long-held fondness for chewing qat is doing real damage to a very poor country, reports Ian Black from Sana'a
Ian Black in Sana'a guardian.co.uk, Tuesday August 12 2008 00:03 BST
It is only mid-afternoon in Sana'a's picturesque old city, a maze of tall gingerbread houses, braying animals and colourful markets. But is is strangely quiet as shopkeepers lounge behind their wares, many of them chewing away furiously at a green wad the size of a golfball. Drivers with bulging cheeks negotiate the narrow streets picking at plastic bags of leaves, sipping water to combat dehydration or sweet fizzy drinks to take away the bitter taste of qat — a national pastime and part of the landscape of this beautiful country.
But as consumption increases and the effects of the global food crisis kick in, attention is starting to focus on the huge damage this habit is doing to a desperately poor people with limited resources of land and water. Seventy percent of all households report at least one user; one in seven of the workforce is involved in production, transport or sale. Qat makes up a third of all Yemeni agriculture.
"I spend 1,000 riyals every a day on qat, and I earn about 4,000," says Hamid from Ta'iz, Yemen's second city. Amin, a journalist, admits to chewing every day. Others indulge only a couple of times a week. But government ministers, officials and businessmen often chew as much as the simplest people. Qat chews can take place on a grimy pavement or in a smart diwan equipped with comfortable cushions and water-pipes. "It helps me relax," explains one habitual user. "It's like having a couple of beers," says another.
Qat is an amphetamine-like stimulant that is banned or restricted by many other countries. Users say chewing the leaves of this spindly shrub encourages conversation and sociability, though this wanes at "Solomon's hour", a time of introspection often accompanied by the playing of the oud. A session might last for three or four hours, after which chewers spit out their wads of qat mulch and go home. Users can become psychologically dependent but it is not considered addictive.
Fares Sanabani, editor of Yemen Today magazine and an aide to President Ali Abdullah Salih, always has a story to tell or something to contribute when he goes to a chew. "I'm sad that it's there but I enjoy the culture," he admits. "We have chews where we listen to music or talk politics. But I don't want my staff to chew. I don't want them to waste their money, especially if they don't have very much."
Until the 1960s qat chewing was an occasional pastime for the elite. But it is now deeply engrained, a product, ironically, of the rapid growth of wealth in the 1970s and 1980s. Abdel-Karim al-Iryani, a former prime minister, now holds qat chews very infrequently. But the minister of religious affairs offered me the choicest leaves when I went to see him at his Sana'a home recently. The Quran and the hadith do not offer unequivocal guidance.
Social pressure is the main reason so many Yemenis chew. "The decision not to use qat is not equivalent to the decision to decline drinks at a dinner party," wrote Branko Milanovic, who studied the phenomenon for the World Bank. "It is much more important because it excludes the person from social contacts that are necessary for his business or private life." If corruption is the country's political glue, commented another foreign student of Yemen, qat is its "social glue".
Tim Mackintosh-Smith, a British writer and veteran resident of Sana'a, dismisses as "quasi-scientific poppycock" the suggestion that chewers are "at best profligates, at worst irretrievable sinners". The so-called "curse of Yemen" has certainly not impaired his ability to write with huge empathy and erudition about this remote and extraordinary corner of south Arabia. The leaf, he insists, helps users to "think, work, and study".
To some, qat makes sense economically. Like poppies in Afghanistan, qat is a high-value and resilient crop that regularly produces good returns for growers. But the result is that it has taken over the most productive arable land and displaced food crops that used to be grown for local consumption or for export (including the legendary Mocha coffee), boosting dependence on imported staples. The price of wheat has doubled or more in recent months.
Another downside is that qat cultivation consumes a staggering 20% of Yemen's already scarce water— cheap to pump with subidised diesel fuel. Government ministers say openly that reducing fuel subsidies would be the most effective way to discourage qat growing.
And the health risks are indisputable: the use of fertilisers and pesticides to increase crop yields can cause cancers of the mouth and digestive system. Qat is also an appetite suppressant. For poor families — in a country where half the population (growing at one of the fastest rates in the world) lives on less than $2 per day — spending on qat means less to spend on food. The World Bank says its consumption requires about 10% of the household budget for all income groups. Malnutrition is already rife and famine is now seen as a real danger.
"It's got to the stage where foreign donors say the government needs to choose between qat and food," warns Khaled al-Mulad, director of the Yemen branch of the Islamic Relief charity.
Some say the taboo on talking about qat has been broken, though official attempts to discourage its use have met little success. Several NGOs are now trying. No-one believes an outright ban could work — if only because chewing is not harmful enough. Parents of children at one Sana'a school complained when their offspring came home to tell them qat was a bad thing: the education programme was shut down.
Qat is banned in the security forces but it is common to see police and soldiers chewing, even, disconcertingly, when on guard duty. Hotels and companies catering to foreigners have enforced a ban on pain of fines or dismissal. Even President Salih announced that he was reducing his consumption. One American diplomat faced a terrible ordeal when he had to go on local TV to explain that qat users would not be granted immigrant visas to the US because the leaf was classified as a drug.
For Abdel-Rahman al-Eryani, Yemen's minister of water and the environment, this year's food crisis has come as a wake-up call, though he fears it may already be too late. "Qat is a drug, even if every Yemeni will fight you if you say that. It has all the symptoms. It's a cash crop that is part of a vicious cycle of internal bleeding. People in this country are simply chewing their way to oblivion."
Yemen divided on vice and virtue
By Ginny Hill
BBC News, Sanaa
A hairdryer whirrs. Teenage girls reach for sequins, glitter and hairpins. It's the weekend in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, and seven sisters are dressing for a wedding.
The eldest, Ashwaq, 21, a university graduate, wants to be a journalist.
Asked what she thinks about Yemen's new self-appointed morality authority, she looks up from styling her sister's hair.
"The first thing they'll do is stop women from working. Then they'll force us to wear the veil."
Yemen is a conservative Islamic society, where parliament boasts only one woman out of 301 MPs.
The state is weak and the courts have limited reach. Instead, cultural practices - such as veiling and gender segregation - are enforced by neighbours, relatives and community leaders.
But on 15 July, a panel of Islamic clerics - supported by prominent tribal chiefs - announced the creation of a Meeting for Protecting Virtue and Fighting Vice.
The unofficial body will alert Yemen's police force to infringements of Islamic law and hold annual conferences to monitor progress.
"This new vice and virtue movement has the potential to undermine the government," says Rahma Hugaira, chair of Yemen's Media Women Forum.
"Civil society groups are working hard to modernise society, to establish a social contract grounded in our constitution and reflected in our laws. A group using religion as a weapon threatens all the progress we have achieved."
The vice and virtue movement reportedly started in Hodeidah, where "morality guardians" began challenging women walking alone and driving without a chaperone.
Couples were asked to prove they were married or closely related. Similar reports began to emerge from Yemen's second city, Aden.
In June, security forces in Hodeidah arrested seven Christian missionaries. In Sanaa, a policemen accompanied by bearded vigilantes raided a Chinese massage parlour and a chain of restaurants.
The movement's figurehead is Abdul Majid Zindani - a popular but controversial cleric who claims to have invented a cure for Aids.
He runs al-Iman university in Sanaa and recently won a licence to operate his own television channel. He speaks for the Muslim Brotherhood and plays a prominent role in the main opposition party, Islah.
In 2004, he was listed as a "specially designated global terrorist" by the US Treasury Department and the UN, but Yemen has taken no steps to freeze his assets.
Eighteen years after universal suffrage, Yemen remains a fragile democracy where party politics are still in formation.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh celebrated 30 years in power in July, and his General People's Congress increases its share of the vote in every public ballot.
Mr Saleh has yet to comment on Sheikh Zindani's initiative, but Ms Hugaira believes his movement is a symptom of politics in flux ahead of parliamentary elections next April.
"Zindani's committee represents a big threat that could close the space for [women's organisations] in civil society," she says
Ali Saif Hassan, director of the Political Development Forum, thinks Sheikh Zindani has overplayed his hand.
"The media's response was so strong the fundamentalists have lost their case. They're in a weaker position."
The vice and virtue authority has already condemned a proposal allocating 15% of parliamentary seats to women in 2009 - and decreed a woman's place is in the home.
Its list of condemned practices includes night-clubs, mixed-sex education, concerts and fashion shows.
Young Yemenis are divided on the issue. "Zindani is massive!" grinned my teenage taxi driver, promptly shoving a cassette of the Koran into his stereo.
But others, like Ashwaq, fear his movement will reverse Yemen's tentative liberalisation - and place further limits on personal freedom and ambition.
When Ashwaq and her sisters are ready to leave the house, they cloak themselves in black to walk the 100 metres to the wedding where they will be separated from men throughout the celebrations.
Party gowns, elaborate hairstyles and make-up disappear under black gauze - just a few frills and high heels are visible. Ashwarq, among a minority of women in Yemen, leaves her face bare.
"We already have plenty of restrictions and obstacles. We don't need any more," she says.
Research for this article was made possible in part by support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Letters: Friendly Yemen
The Guardian, Saturday August 2 2008
Yet another article (Ian Black, July 30) emphasising what an extreme and dangerous country Yemen is. Against the same Foreign Office advice you mention, I spent three weeks travelling through the country - often to the most remote (and apparently most dangerous) mountain regions - researching a play about the Yemeni seamen's riot in South Shields in 1930. I found Yemen the most hospitable, courteous, helpful and welcoming country I have ever been in, yet starved of visitors because of its reputation. I was so knocked out, I wrote a book about it.
Author, Cool for Qat - A Yemeni Journey