Marib farmers talk to YT:Funding fails to reach dam basin’s poor [Archives:2005/825/Reportage]

March 17 2005

Hassan Al-Zaidi
One of the achievements of President Ali Abdullah Saleh did was rebuilding the Great Marib Dam in 1983, with money from the UAE. Visiting the dam now, one is struck by the view of stagnant water in the Dam's basin and the homes scattered on the highlands built of athal branches surrounding the dam.

The Yemen Times talked to some of the owners of the huts and found that they used to own land and houses. They abandoned them when rising water from the dam flooded their lands and circled their houses. Mosquitoes have since turned their life into hell. They have received little compensation from the Ministry of Agriculture for their losses, not more than YR 20,000 per family. They moved to Sirwah area where the Queen of Sheba, Bilqis, erected her summer resort during the peak of the Sheba Civilization, which prospered because of the water from Marib Dam.

After over fifteen years of homelessness and futile attempts at finding sources of income other than agriculture they have returned, crestfallen to the dam's basin. Some returnees had moved back as early as 1994 where they built huts made out of athal branches, which they often uproot with their bare hands. They receive no help from either the Ministry of Agriculture, or the Marib-based Eastern Areas Development Authority (EADA), which possesses tractors, shovels, and modern equipment swallowing millions of dollars under the pretext of helping farmers.

The Ministry of Agriculture and EADA officials instead use the money to build the finest villas in the capital city. The cost of the Deputy Agriculture Manager's new villa is estimated at YR45 million, and is being built in the most prestigious area of Sana'a. This continues while farmers live in huts.

Farmer Ahmed Sa'eed Ali said, “I have come to this place to reclaim my land which my father abandoned when water from the dam flooded it. I have dug a well on one side of the valley and removed athal trees from part of my land. Now it is ploughed and cultivated I grow my land hoping that I can make enough money to expand the farm and reclaim the rest of the land.”

However, the market disappointed him and his tomato crop recovered only two thirds of his expenses. Part of the harvest perished on the farm due to lack of transportation.

“Prices discouraged me from renting a car. Transportation fares exceeded the price of the load of tomatoes. A 25-kilo basket of tomatoes is sold at YR 100. A carload is 80 baskets and the fares exceed YR 15000. Thus, I should pay an extra seven thousand in addition to the tomato price for transportation, and then add to this wages for workers taking care and plucking the vegetables.”

Naji bin Saleh, another farmer, said, “after the return to the Dam's basin, farmers dug wells hardening their walls with concrete. There are some 50 wells in the basin each of which costs YR 300,000 ($1620). Farmers buy water pumps that are made in India because these one costs just $50.”

Farmers also grow potatoes, and honeydew melons, cereals (wheat, corn). They are grateful to India. “We thank India which has exported cheap pumps to us. The Ministry of Agriculture is our enemy because it eats up aids in our name and has given as the crumbs,” added Naji.

“The Agriculture Office and EADA do not provide us with facilities despite our constant demands to bring a caterpillar tractor and a shovel to help reclaim lands for cheap prices. They provide us with neither seeds nor consultation. Our crops suffer pests and our requests are turned down. The recent request was for the Agriculture Office to spray the Dam's basin so as to get rid of the mosquitoes that endanger our lives and has killed a number of children, but our calls fall on deaf ears.”

Naji Tu'aiman said, “the soil is fertile and production is good, but the problem lies in the lack of equipment to reclaim lands. Tractors are scarce in the sowing season. This puts hurdles before farmers. Moreover, there is the low price of tomatoes and vegetables in general. Farmers incur the high price of the seed and bear the loss at times due to decreases in price.”

He mentioned also some pests that affect farms and the need for agricultural consultants to instruct farmers on ways of combating diseases. “The Agriculture Office is concerned only with distribution of luxurious cars to officers, building colossal structures for offices and giving salaries for employees waiting in their air-conditioned offices for the US Ambassador's promises.”

Farmer Aziz further said, “we have hope in the US Ambassador. We have heard that the US will support Marib's agriculture through loans for buying cattle, etc. This has not happened yet. Perhaps, the US support has come and the Agriculture Office's officials have invested it in building their own villas in Sana'a or purchasing lands.”

Among the scattered huts, I found a three-part hut. Approaching it, I could see that there were three rooms each of which contained a number of school students.

“The school day is divided into two halves,” said Sheikh Yahya bin Ahmed. “In these three classrooms, pupils from grade one through grade six study in the morning and grades seven to nine study in the afternoon. The Education Office has assigned teachers for the school, but they do not attend.” The number of the students were 80, but some classes now sit idly because of the lack of teachers.

Sheikh Yahya continued, “Nobody has shown cooperation with us except for the Al-Saleh Establishment which visited us in the beginning of the school year and distributed 33 bags. We thank them for this. We also invite the UAE Ambassador to visit the area to see the conditions of the people and fate they suffer due to the construction of the dam, which has changed from an advantage into a disadvantage.

“I also invite the US Ambassador to visit the Dam's basin to see historic places and assess the achievements of the Agriculture Office and see whether any of the US promises to help Marib agriculture and farmers has materialized. I fear the support is pocketed by corrupt officials as was done by past aids from brotherly and friendly countries.”