General Director of the Sana’a Basin Water Management Project:”The existing project will extend the life of the aquifers, but it won’t solve the problem.” [Archives:2006/1000/Health]

November 20 2006
Two farmers working to get groundwater from the Sanaa Basin.
Two farmers working to get groundwater from the Sanaa Basin.
Most water extraction is for irrigating cash crops and highly-valuable crops like qat.
Most water extraction is for irrigating cash crops and highly-valuable crops like qat.
Interviewed by: Amel Al-Ariqi
Reports continue warning of dryness threatening many Yemeni cities. The capital city of Sana'a and its surroundings top the list of cities facing drought within the next 10 years. In order to face the water crisis in these regions, the World Bank is supporting the Sana'a Basin Water Management Project (SBWMP), which aims to assist Yemen's government in containing groundwater depletion in the Sana'a Basin, considered the main water source for these regions.

The Yemen Times interviewed project general director, Mohammed Harmal, to highlight this project and its affect on the water status in Sana'a.

How would you describe Sana'a Basin's current state?

Sana'a Basin is a highland area spread over 3,200 square kilometers, with an approximate 2.4 million population that's growing an estimated 7 percent annually. The basin's irrigated agricultural land has swelled from 3,000 hectares in 1985 to 23,400 hectares in 2000, covering approximately 7 percent of land area.

Groundwater extraction began exceeding recharge in the mid-1980s due to rapid population growth and sharp increases in water use for agricultural purposes. Estimated annual recharge is approximately 80-120 million cubic meters, whereas groundwater extraction could be as high as 250 million cubic meters.

As much as 80 percent of such extraction is for irrigating agriculture comprising cash crops and highly-value crops like qat and grapes. Because of being the most profitable product, water is pumped from depths of up to 600 meters for qat, whereas fruits and vegetables, which draw water from only about 300-400 meters, are next.

Because of the situation projected above, depletion of groundwater resources and degrading water quality have started to increase at an alarming rate.

The Sana'a Basin Water Management Project (SBWMP) is supported by the World Bank. Can you describe this project?

The objectives of the overall 15-year program are: to increase both the quantity and useable life of groundwater resources available in Sana'a Basin, thus postponing the date at which extremely expensive new supplies may have to be brought in from outside the basin. The program is also aim to concurrently increase the efficiency of irrigation water use so as to allow time for a gradual shift to a less water-based rural economy in the basin; and to strengthen and build an institutional and legal framework capable of dealing with future basin management issues nationwide.

The program's current first phase consists of the five-year Sana'a Basin Water Management Project (SBWMP), which has the following basic objectives:

(a) to implement, test and develop “best practice” demand (primarily irrigation) and supply (primarily recharge) management methods in a limited area for later application of lessons learned and large-scale implementation throughout the Sana'a Basin under the program's subsequent two phases;

(b) to rehabilitate and rebuild damaged dams to improve downstream safety and enhance recharging of groundwater aquifers;

(c) to establish a regulatory, legal and institutional framework needed for more sustainable water resource management in the basin; and

(d) to prepare the program's Phase II project.

A secondary objective is to enhance local rural development through community organizations.

How can you achieve these goals?

The SBWMP comprises seven components, each of which has specific purposes, but all of which contribute to meeting basic project objectives and presenting an integrated water resources management. The first component concerns Manage demand and improve irrigation. This component seeks to achieve agricultural water conservation by increasing water use efficiency for irrigation by introducing modern irrigation systems and equipment.

Second component deals with manage supply and improve recharge.This component's primary purpose is to enhance groundwater recharge via existing and new conventional dams, as well as through subsurface dams, check dams and other structures. It's expected that farmers then would pump water from shallow aquifers rather than from deep aquifers, which are a critical drinking and domestic water source for Sana'a city. A further purpose is to effect safety improvements to existing dams.

Third Component is called develop institutions and build capacities. This component aims to develop overall institutional and managerial frameworks and capacities for basin water resource management. Intended activities include:

(i) developing the National Water Resources Authority-Sana'a Branch's (NWRA-SB) capacity for water resource management, as well as the water sector and regulatory and monitoring frameworks and processes;

(ii) building the NWRA-SB's capacity for basin water resource planning and management

(iii) investigating and monitoring basin hydro-geological and water resources

(iv) providing capacity building and training the NWRA-SB

(iv) developing institutional basin-level stakeholder water management, relating to sub-catchment federations of Water User Associations (WUAs), i.e., Water User Federations (WUFs), and to the Sana'a Basin Commission, the basin-level stakeholders' water management entity.

The fourth component is information and public awareness campaign.The campaign's objective is to raise the level of public understanding and awareness about water scarcity issues by transmitting water conservation messages to targeted segments of society.

Planned segments include schools (students and teachers), central government (parliamentarians), the media (journalists), the farming community, health centers and hospitals (to reach women), local councils and associations (to reach men), industries (industrial water users) and both rural and urban special interest groups.

While fifth Component is called Environmental Management Plan and Mitigation Program.The program as a whole serves to improve Sana'a Basin's environmental situation, but this component specifically includes necessary environmental management and mitigation interventions to supplement measures incorporated in the other project components.

Taken together, all of these measures comprise the project's Environmental Management Plan (EMP). Identified additional needs to be met by this component relate to EMP coordination and overview, public consultation, general environmental monitoring, dam safety reviews and monitoring, water quality and pollution monitoring, pesticide management improvements, public health issues (specifically bilharzia control), cultural heritage protection and urgent and short-term environmental improvement measures for the Sana'a city Wastewater Treatment Plant.

The sixth component covers inputs needed for project management, direction, overview, coordination, review, disbursement and procurement, administration and monitoring and evaluation through a Project Coordination Unit. It corresponds directly to the Sana'a Basin Commission's Project Management and Monitoring, as well as dedicated implementation units within appropriate line agencies that eventually could assume higher-level project management responsibilities.

And the seventh Component involves preparing the Phase II project, which is subject to satisfactory interim reviews and assessments of SBWMP performance and achievements.

Supporting organizations often stipulate community participation and involvement in such projects, so what do you do in that regard?

Community participation and involvement in the demand component is implemented via (i) technical and organizational support to well-based local farming groups, i.e., water user groups (WUGs), (ii) legal and functional establishment of community groundwater user organizations, i.e., WUAs, at the well field or village level, and (iii) corresponding technical and managerial training and extension programs involving both farmers and Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation staff assigned to its Sana'a office for irrigation development and extension duties in the basin.

Regarding the supply component, the project will create sustainable dam and recharge systems management by strengthening the relevant capacity of the responsible government agency, the agriculture ministry's General Directorate of Irrigation and formalizing or establishing community operation and maintenance organizations (i.e., WUAs/WUFs) at the wadi branch or village level, together with appropriate training and extension programs.

How has the Sana'a Basin Water Management Project achieved its first phase goals and how do you assess your performance during that stage?

The project really began in the second quarter of 2004. As Yemen's pilot project, the SBWMP has concentrated on quality, not quantity, while implementing its components. Implementing such components varies, especially for those considered slow due to establishing WUAs and training them how to run association business (administration and financial), as well as how to maintain and operate modern irrigation systems installed on their farms.

What about random well drilling?

Random well drilling is a big issue, not only in Sana'a Basin, but nationwide. New water law No. 33 issued in 2004 is a useful support to the water resource strategy. Additionally, the Yemeni Cabinet issued decree No. 343 declaring Sana'a Basin a protected zone wherein drilling deep wells is prohibited. However, the decree gave exceptions for drinking purposes and deepening or drilling alternative wells, which is subject to certain measures and controls.

The NWRA-SB is exerting much effort to enforce the water law and the decree at the basin level; for example, the NWRA must issue a license before drilling or deepening any well. With all of the aforementioned issues, the Sana'a authority is unable to control random and/or unlicensed well drilling due to lack of cooperation by the public and agencies responsible for helping enforce regulations to control drilling activities. The NWRA-SB has installed a free hotline phone number 173 for the public to inform it of any drilling activities.

Will the Sana'a Basin be able to cover the constant water demands, particularly with increasing population growth and expanding construction, or should we begin thinking about other future solutions?

The water situation is quite complicated and requires much effort and work from both the government and the public. Project objectives regarding water conservation are in the process and assessments from implementing these objectives aren't ready yet. It's obvious that Sana'a is suffering water scarcity and the need to transfer water from other sources is urgent. The existing project will extend the life of the aquifers, but it won't solve the problem. In my opinion, we must work in both directions, which are conserving currently available groundwater and searching for future solutions.

What motivation do you offer farmers to restrict water depletion?

The NWRA-SB is working very hard to implement and enforce water sector regulations that will help reduce random well drilling and control drillers. The Sana'a authority also is launching an awareness program. As mentioned above, the information and public awareness campaign's objective is to raise the level of public understanding and awareness about water scarcity issues. The project is introducing new irrigation systems to farmers, which will help reduce the amount of water used for irrigation.

Some reports point to pollution in the basin. Can you expand on that?

A major well inventory was compiled for Sana'a City in 1995, wherein water samples were analyzed for major cations and anions. Five years later, the opportunity was taken to repeat the same exercise on a sub-set of the original wells. The result showed that urban groundwater was characterized by high concentration of almost all of the cations and anions due to wastewater continuously infiltrating the aquifer via cesspits.

Another source of pollution in the basin is due to reusing untreated wastewater to irrigate some parts of the agricultural area north of Sana'a Wastewater Treatment Plant.

How is construction in the basin affecting its recharge?

Construction in Sana'a basin has a big influence on recharging the shallow aquifer due to constructing new buildings and roads with concrete and asphalt, which reduce percolation and infiltration during the rainy season. A good example is the shallow wells located near the Old City, which dried up after constructing the Al-Sailah project.

Many farmers complain about fees they must pay in order to get modern irrigation means. What is your comment about this?

The SBWMP is providing farmers subsidized modern irrigation systems at very cheap prices, ranging between 25 and 40 percent of the actual cost. Farmers contribute 20 percent to insulate the system, while the project contributes 80 percent.

What institutions or organizations do you cooperate with and how do you define each organization's role?

Several agencies and ministries are involved with SBWMP activities and they can be summarized as follows:

– The Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation's General Directory of Irrigation is involved in implementing the project's supply component.

– The Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation's General Department of Plant Protection implements pesticide integration management plans for qat and grapes.

– Ministry of Public Health and Population implements the bilharzia control program.

– Other agencies like the Environmental Protection Authority, the local water and the Sanitation Corporation are involved in implementing Component 5 – Environmental Management Plan and Mitigation Program.

– The NWRA-SB is responsible for implementing Component 3 – Developing institutions and building capacities and Component 4 – Information and public awareness campaign.