Desertification in Yemen & France! [Archives:1998/17/Business & Economy]

April 27 1998

Francois Gillet, a French architect, has been awarded a grant by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Construction to conduct a study on the cities of the desert all over the world.
Gillet visited Yemen recently to pursue his study. He talked to Dr. Salah Haddash, Yemen Times Managing Editor who filed the following interview.
Q: How did the idea for your study come about?
A: Basically, I just initiated the study myself and approached the French government to assist me. The main aim is to study the major different cases of cities established in the desert in different parts of the world.
The first step of this project led me to Sanaa and the cities of Hadhramaut in Yemen, to Abu Dhabi in the UAE, and then to Las Vegas, USA. The subject is to try to find cities established in these geographic deserts, find out how they survived through the ages, figure out the differences between them all, and to see what are the main characteristics of the cities of the desert.
My ultimate goal is to know how we can live in the desert. So, I picked up those three cities as a starting point for different reasons:
– Abu Dhabi is a vibrant city relying on their oil income;
– Sanaa and the cities of Hadhramaut has traditionally been cities of the desert for ages and they are still expanding cities. Sanaa is the oldest of the three cities and it is interesting to observe the relationship of its latest periphery with the structure of the old city.
– Las Vegas is a totally different city. It is the kind of solution for the next city of the desert, based on information, media and exhibitions, etc.
Q: Will your study cover these three regions only?
A: In the second part of my study, I picked three small cities in France, which are the following: Savernes east of France near Strasbourg, Parthenay west of France near Poitiers and Lapalisse located in the centre of France in Auverge. These cities are actually struggling because of the slow desertification of rural and agricultural regions.
I’m trying to work out the points of resemblance between the real cities of the desert and the French desert cities. So I’m traveling around the world and getting connected through the Internet with those 3 French cities. Everyday, I send them an e-mail with a photograph to tell them what I’m going to didisscover so they can follow me on my trip through the desert. I spent three weeks in February in Abu Dhabi. Now, I’ll be in Yemen for 2 weeks. Then I’ll be going to Las Vegas.
I’m trying to find new ideas and solutions and then try to work with those French cities to see if we can adapt foreign experiences.
Q: What are you expecting to find in this part of the world, and how does it compare to what you have in France?
A: As far as my project is concerned, Abu Dubai is not a very interesting city. It is a city newly constructed by English or American people. What I found really worthy in Abu Dubai is that how in 25 years time the population was able to settle down; making the city become an important political and economic pole because of its wise use of its natural resources.
The new towns around Paris have more than 150,000 inhabitants each. So comparing the two cases, even though the Emirates are really wealthy people, that is not the only thing. They have the will to construct and to be a part of the world. Even though they live in the desert, they achieve full utilization of the city.
The traditional cities of Yemen are supposed to give me all the information I need. I’ve been reading a lot about Yemen, but I wanted to come just to confirm these readings. The main topic of my study is to make a comparison between the traditional Yemeni and Gulf towns and the big cities of France.
In Yemen, people built cities not only to protect themselves from enemies, but also to gather around one point. In this way they live as one family in suitably built houses in order to protect themselves from the hard nature of the desert. Unlike in other counties all over the world, where rural and agricultural decline takes place, Yemeni desert cities have not been badly affected. People tend to stay in the country even though there is a lot of migration from the countryside into Sanaa.
Q: Have you found suitable solutions?
A: I’ve been put in contact through the University of Aline in France with people from the universities of Aden and Sanaa and with other French organizations to try to get all together. Even though Yemen and France are different, we have to find solutions for both our problems. We have to make something in order to stop people’s moving to cities and have them live where they are. For that, we need people from different areas to provide solutions for this problem.