After years of illegal exhaustion of underground waterAmran governorate is trying to improve its water supply and sanitation system [Archives:2008/1158/Health]

May 26 2008

Hamed Thabet
Although Amran governorate faces a lack of clean drinking water, both residents and authorities are ignoring this problem while exhausting much of the usable groundwater to grow qat.

There are no laws in Yemen preventing farmers from growing qat. In all of Amran's rural areas and districts, nearly all locals depend on qat to provide them an income. However, water already is scarce and cultivating qat depends on a plentiful water supply. People are suffering due to the extensive water use going to qat crops, says Bakr Ali, deputy governor of Amran governorate's environment sector.

He notes that since last year, approximately 70 illegal water-drilling machines have pumped water from Amran's water reservoirs or underground tanks.

“So far, we've gotten rid of most of these machines by lawfully suing them,” he says, adding, “Only three to seven drilling machines remain, which we'll fight in the coming days.” He noted that other illegal drilling machines avoided prosecution by moving to governorates such as Al-Mahrah.

He points out that his department has encountered problems while trying to fight illegal drilling because he says many of the illegal drillers are powerful individuals. “They challenged the government by paying bribes and used their power to stop us, but so far, we're doing fine,” he says.

Three months ago in Amran's Kharif district, security forces went to stop a driller, but he refused, challenging anyone to stop him – including the government. More security forces eventually arrived at the scene and the man was caught with the help of local citizens. The illegal drill then was turned over to the court, where the man faced heavy fines for his illegal activities.

“[Drillers] must pay YR 1 million for working and digging illegally. After paying, the owner can take back his water drilling machine from the court, but he must guarantee that he won't work illegally again and he must get the government's permission before doing any type of digging,” explained Abdulhakim Al-Qeisi, head of water protection in Amran city.

According to him, another problem involved water project workers and several locals in Beit Al-Qara'a district, so the project was postponed for four months and only resumed after influential leaders intervened. The project will aid 3,000 people.

GTZ's program seeks to implement and improve the water supply and sanitation in rural areas and districts and provide clean water and organize it. “We finally jailed the troublemakers, formed a new committee and started again,” he says.

Al-Qeisi also affirmed Ali's allegations that the main problems are illegal water pumping and random digging near underground water reservoirs.

Beginning in Bani Matar and Arhab and ending in Kharif and Dhaibin districts, Amran's underground water reservoir is between 40 and 45 square kilometers and includes 2,567 wells. Al-Qeisi says the governorate daily pumps 5,000 cubic meters of water.


There are 20 districts in Amran governorate, which has a population of 900,000 to a million people. There are also many natural water sources in Amran from which its water reservoir gets its sources. When there's digging near these sources, the reservoir is affected and sometimes runs dry, Ali says.

“We're also trying to stop area residents from growing qat because it takes a lot of water,” Al-Qeisi said, “however, this isn't easy because locals don't accept it, so it'll take time. Thus far, the governorate's local council has gathered to study the problem with the responsible authorities that are working in the water sector.”

Due to poor service coverage, defective systems and irregular supply, large portions of Yemen's rural population still depend on spring water, which the poor cannot afford. Only 60 percent of the rural population has safe access to clean water and much less to safe sanitation services.

Considering the high rural population growth of around 3.5 percent annually and the increasing pressure on groundwater reservoirs, the challenge to find and provide safe drinking water will increase dramatically in the future.

Last year, Amran governorate decided to dedicate a special council for these problems. The council also is attempting to find solutions by choosing from the available proposed water projects, Ali explains.

Tribal, religious and social leaders from nearly all Amran districts are invited to the governorate's regular water council meeting. The World Bank, the Local Organization for Protecting Water, the Public Works Fund, the Development and Agriculture Fund and the German Technical Cooperation, known as GTZ, also take part in the meetings, Al-Qeisi noted.

Ali said there are 137 proposed projects addressing water problems in the region, which will be completed within the next two years.

Amran's underground water reservoir feeds numerous rural villages, so selling illegally drilled water is another problem because it affects the reservoir and exhausts it, in addition to taking water away from the villages because some villagers were selling it illegally. Ali stated that there's a government order to build six reservoirs in various areas of Amran at a cost of YR 1.35 billion.

Amran is figuring out how to protect itself from exhausting its water supply and safely hold on to what's left in its groundwater tank.

Ramon Scoble, team leader for GTZ's Community-based Water Assistance Project, says local residents don't realize the impact that illegal water drilling and selling has on the governorate.

“We must have awareness programs to make people understand the water problem,” he says, noting that GTZ has been doing research in Amran governorate for the past five years.

GTZ began working on $2 million worth of water improvement projects in 2006 and 10 communities in Amran chosen by the local council will reap the benefits of this work. However, GTZ's water and sanitation programs cover not only Amran governorate, but multiple regions of Yemen, one of its focus countries.

“We receive financial support from the Yemeni government and GTZ provides the technical help to develop the system. This is the first [program] in Amran and for GTZ, it's the first time in the world,” Scoble pointed out, adding that GTZ's Community-based Water Assistance Program is only for villages and rural areas – not cities.

“The German water support has been successful and still is working in Amran due to the cooperation of locals and the government,” noted Gerhard Lichtenthaeler, advisor to GTZ's larger-scope Integrated Water Resources Management Project.