How much should Sana’a grow? [Archives:2005/891/Opinion]

November 3 2005

The crater like site of the City of Sana'a is fast approaching full capacity and pretty soon the “No Vacancy” sign will rise above Jabal Nuqum (the magnificent mountain overlooking the city in the Eastern Periphery). It dawned upon this observer while reflecting on the visit of the Turkish Prime Minister to the Old City of Sana'a that indeed the city has gone far beyond the borders of the Old City at a remarkable speed and rate of absorption, for which the Capital Secretariat has not even fully provided the necessary infrastructure. In fact, until the coming of the present Mayor of Sana'a, Mr. Ahmed Al-Kuhlani, the city lacked any semblance of urban planning and municipal services to speak of for decades. Yet the city continued to grow by leaps and bounds. The rigid centralized structure of government and the influx of large numbers of Yemeni emigres from outside the country as well as the relative neglect suffered by the rural countryside has led to a rapid settlement and growth of the population in the cities. Sana'a bore the brunt of this sudden demographic transformation of life in Yemen and it is not exactly sure when this will end. Needless to say, for environmental and strategic reasons, this growth, at least as far as Sana'a is concerned needs to be controlled and limited as much as possible. For one thing, the awesome traffic jams, one has experienced over the pre-holiday and holiday hiatus surely does not provide room for comfort. The increase in the use of diesel engines to drive autos and mini buses, in addition to the increase of truck traffic has created a relative air pollution nightmare in the city, which just a few decades ago prided on having the cleanest air of any city in the world. The number of cars in the city in 1961 did not exceed the number of fingers on both hands and the total population of the city did not exceed 50,000. At that time, almost every household had their own domestic water supply – a well built into each house almost and municipal sanitation was neatly provided by the gardens that interlaced the city with a rather neat town planning scheme that harmonized nature with urban flair, albeit of another time period in the history of man.

But now, the city of peace and quiet has turned into a nightmare of hustle and bustle and congestion and as one indigenous Sana'ani recently said to this observer, “I feel like a foreigner in my own town. What happened to the Sana'a we knew, in which every one knew all his neighbors and every event in the city was bound to cross the grapevine in a matter of minutes?”

The Old City of Sana'a and the Bir Al-Azab (Albonia Street, the former Jewish Quarter and the western periphery of the Liberation Square) area all that amounted to the area of the city. Hadda, Rawdha and Wadi Dhahr were considered summer resorts for the well to do in Sana'a and the latter two were producers of the finest white grapes in the world. Miltary installations and adjoining housing schmenes as well as rapid urbanization swallowed up most of the very fertile and irreplaceable cultivable area there and all around the rich gorunds of the Sana'a crater and in a relatively short time, we can declare Rawdha grapes to be extinct to be soon followed by the Al-Qariah, or Wadi Dhahr grapes. But then the agricultural nature of the country and the abundance of the harvests provided for a nice balance between urban and rural habitats and each area of the country managed to keep its own separate relatively sustainable way of life, with no complaints from either side.

While no one is against progress, it goes without saying that there was a lot of the peaceful climate and clean atmosphere that was worthy of conserving and some of the urban planning genius of the Old City should have spilled over into areas like Al-Jiraf Section and Hayel Street, to name just a couple of the sprawling new areas that have become an ugly labyrinth of stone and cement with narrow streets and a cold mundane cosmopolitan panorama that has killed some of the heretofore phenomenal beauty that the Old City of Sana'a enjoyed for centuries, if not millennia.

Having said that, it is imperative to point out that for practical reasons, Sana'a cannot simply take any further growth, at the rates witnessed especially from 1990 to the present and there are eminent signs of danger that further growth is bound to lead to a serious water supply crisis that will be an ongoing nightmare for the Capital Secretariat. We need to reflect on this eminence and we need to provide for alternatives in dealing with the inescapable possibility that Sana'a Basin will simply be incapable of providing the water needs of a population that transformed overnight from 50,000 to 1.5 million.

Happy Eid Al-Fitr to all Yemenis everywhere and to their Moslem brothers throughout the world and many happy returns from the City of Sam.

Eid Al-Fitr 1426 AH