Farmers unaware of Yemen’s water shortage, experts say [Archives:2007/1110/Health]

December 10 2007
GTZ and NWRA distributed logos and mascota to spread awareness on the right way to use water.
GTZ and NWRA distributed logos and mascota to spread awareness on the right way to use water.
Hamed Thabet
In an effort to reduce the nation's water shortage, Yemen will apply new water awareness strategies that include logos and a mascot to enlighten its citizens, especially farmers. Hamed Thabet reports.

The role of logos and mascots is to teach people proper water usage, as GTZ Awareness Coordinator Marcos Abbs explains, “The goal of using logos and the mascot is to impart water awareness to everyone everywhere. We chose blue for the logo and the mascot is a drop of water dressed as a Yemeni man.”

According to engineer Salem Bashuaib, chairman of the National Water Resource Authority, “The awareness campaign has a very important role, but it won't be successful unless citizens are acquainted with water's benefits and how to manage it properly.”

Jochen Renger, head of GTZ's Water Sector Program, notes, “In Yemen, strategies and programs in this area aren't on paper; rather, they are activities that must be done in real life. The issue is how to use the best method to make this strategy succeed. Moreover, preparations regarding water awareness should include responsibilities and the necessary finances to provide sufficient resources.”

Yemeni agriculture remains undeveloped and needs improvement for the better; for example, most Yemeni farmers continue using old methods of irrigation, which is wrong. However, Mohammed Al-Hamdi, Yemen's deputy minister of water and environment, remarks, “I hope this water awareness program's materials and strategies will be clear and easy for Yemeni farmers to understand,” adding, “Since religion is the primary source of power in Yemen, if we use that, efficiency will be higher and more fruitful.”

Because Yemen's water supply relies on groundwater, the nation suffers grave water shortages. For example, only 125 cubic meters are available annually per capita and groundwater is being heavily overexploited and polluted. In some regions, extraction exceeds replenishment by 400 percent.

This endangers not only the drinking water supply for rural and urban areas, but also the livelihoods of small-scale agricultural farmers. It's estimated that more than 90 percent of Yemen's water resources are used for irrigation.

Additionally, approximately 53 percent of the nation's urban population has no access to centralized water systems, while approximately 75 percent are without centralized sanitation services.

UNDP Communications Officer Dana Issa, comments that, “Focusing on communication and the awareness strategy is very useful to creating a corporate identity for [the National Water Resource Authority] in order for it to achieve its goals.”

On the local level, GTZ supports water utilities in the fields of management, operations, customer dialogue and public awareness until they are able to perform at a high standard.

Additionally, advisory committees to water utilities representing local interests such as those for women and the poor have been established and given support. Such advisory committees play a pivotal role, especially in setting pro-poor water tariffs and improving services to customers.

Public information centers also have been established to promote hygiene education, conduct water conservation campaigns and train field workers in customer dialogue.

Renger explains further, “Realizing the importance of water awareness and citizen's rights to use water, we decided to redouble our efforts, for example, instituting new strategies, new plans and better studies, while converting the old method of irrigation, which is very wasteful, into drip irrigation.

He continues, “The process of awareness will take time for it to take hold, requiring evaluation and follow-up from time to time in order to know whether we're doing good or not. Nevertheless, GTZ and UNDP will unite their efforts and work together so that the awareness program is done in the right way.”

Water is in extremely short supply in Yemen. Every year, the nation uses nearly one and a half times the amount of water that can be replaced naturally and it has one of the fastest shrinking groundwater levels in the world.

Additionally, existing water resources, often fossilized water, are being exploited in a completely uncontrolled manner. Approximately 90 percent of water withdrawn is used for agriculture, half of it for qat, the cultivation of which is edging out coffee, wheat and millet production, thus obliging Yemen to import approximately 75 percent of its basic foodstuffs.

Many Yemenis have no knowledge of the water problems their nation is experiencing, as Bashuaib notes, “Undoubtedly, many people don't know about the water problem. Rather, they think the problems result from government negligence toward this sector, as well as technical problems. However, once citizens are cognizant of the problem, it will be solved.”

Moreover, he continues, “Water awareness is the main factor in having the best development, especially in Yemen. Although we face many challenges in this field, we are making progress by gaining support from various organizations, many government foundations and whoever seeks a better future for Yemen.”

Renger observes, “There also should be a national water awareness program specifically focusing on the cultural sector because each area has a different way of thinking and a different style.”

As one of the world's most water-poor countries, Yemen rarely receives rainfall and is practically devoid of rivers. Only 150 cubic meters of water is available from renewable sources per capita, placing the nation well below the water poverty line, which is 1,000 cubic meters of available water per capita.

The country's rapidly expanding population and increased agricultural irrigation have pushed demand steadily upward until it now is tapping fossilized groundwater reserves, which can't be renewed naturally. In some regions where groundwater levels have fallen, chances are that the water supply system to the capital and its surrounding areas will collapse completely within the next 20 years.

UNDP Country Director Dr. Selvaumaran Ramchandran says, “Yemen depends on groundwater due to not having any rivers or other sources for water. UNDP has instituted many plans to solve the country's water problems in a short time.”

The Yemeni government's national water strategy has laid the foundations for improved donor coordination of its groundwater supply, drawing up an action plan for the water sector in conjunction with donors in that sector, which will lay out concrete goals and set a timeframe for activities.

Bashuaib adds, “We'll work hard to improve development in this field, including building large tanks for such operations and of course, qualifying staff to take responsibility in this field in the future. It's very a good sign that Yemen has realized its water problems and begun dealing with them.”

The majority of Yemen's water basins experience significant depletion due to dramatic increases in water demand as the nation's population continues growing, in addition to expanding agricultural and industrial projects, as well as large numbers of wells drilled indiscriminately. All of this has led to a sharp decline in underground water reserves, coupled with such waters' varying degrees of salinity, according to studies and regular well surveys.

According to World Bank reports, Yemen's problem is more critical due to its water resources being distributed unevenly and the fact that 90 percent of its population has less than 90 cubic meters of water annually for domestic use, which is 10 percent below the worldwide norm. Reports estimate that only 44 percent of the Yemeni population has access to main water supplies and only 12 percent to safe sanitation.

In general, all surface water resources – which comprise 60 percent of Yemen's renewable resources – already are being exploited beyond the level of renewal. Such rapid development has brought with it major problems.

For example, groundwater is being mined at such a rate that parts of the rural economy could dry up. Those Yemeni areas under greatest pressure are the central highlands, the western escarpment and the coastal plains.