Minister of Water and Environment to the Yemen Times:Water and environment are major concerns in Yemen [Archives:2008/1140/Health]

March 24 2008
Ministry of Water and Environment Abdul-Rahman F. Al-Eryani
Ministry of Water and Environment Abdul-Rahman F. Al-Eryani
Yemen is one of the world's most water scarce countries, with an average per capita share of renewable water resources of 125 cubic meters annually, according to government estimates. This is one-tenth of the average in most countries of the Middle East and North Africa and one-fiftieth of the world average.

According to a recent UNICEF report, Yemen has the world's fourth fastest growing population, which increasingly reduces each individual's available share of fresh water. Experts in the government and from donor nations describe the problem as a looming national disaster.

Additionally, other relevant reports indicate that Yemen faces a chronic imbalance between population and water resources due to its increasing population and scarcity of water resources.

The National Water Resources Authority, or NWRA, estimates that the country's total renewable freshwater resources are just 2,500 million cubic meters (MCM) a year, of which 1,500 MCM is surface water and 1,000 MCM is groundwater. However, experts say current annual demand is 3,200 MCM, resulting in a shortfall of 700 MCM.

The Yemeni government has raised the possibility of changing the nation's economic base so that citizens switch from water-based activities to non-water based activities, but this is politically very sensitive in a country where 50 percent of the population works in agriculture.

In an effort to gain further information about this worsening phenomenon, Ismail Al-Ghabri interviewed Yemen's Minister of Water and Environment, Abdul-Rahman Al-Eryani, who highlighted the fact that water and the environment are major concerns in Yemen.

As Yemen is marking World Water Day in conjunction with other countries worldwide, how do you assess our nation's water situation?

Water shortage is an intricate problem in Yemen, while the individual average share of water – estimated between 120 and 125 cubic meters of water annually for drinking, industry, agriculture and other purposes, places Yemen on the list of most water scarce countries.

Such a fact can't be changed, particularly when Yemen is experiencing rapid population growth directly affecting its development. Additionally, Yemen is one of the few nations suffering scarce rainfall.

Another problem is poor water management. We at the Ministry of Water and Environment concentrate on two primary issues, the first of which relates to providing water and sanitation services to the maximum possible portion of the population.

Progress in this regard mostly depends on available funding. Up to 60 percent of the urban population and 45 percent of the rural population now has access to water and sanitation services and this rate is expected to grow over time.

According to studies, Yemen may become the world's most water scarce country. In your opinion, what is a workable solution to this problem?

Good water resources management remains a pressing issue in Yemen and requires cooperation and joint efforts by younger and elder citizens. Neither the Ministry of Water and Environment, the National Water Resources Authority nor governorate leaders have suggested possible solutions to this phenomenon. Just like fighting corruption, terrorism or poverty, resolving this water crisis necessitates a nationwide program incorporating all citizens' efforts to improve water management.

The Yemeni government now is giving top priority to harvesting and collecting rainwater during the rainy seasons through various means, including both large and small dams, which, in addition to providing large water reserves for watering agricultural crops during non-rainy seasons, also feed groundwater.

As a first step toward preserving groundwater supplies from random depletion, the Yemeni Cabinet recently issued a decree directing relevant agencies within the agricultural sector to study various means of water harvesting and collection, in addition to required measures rationing water consumption for agricultural purposes.

Underground reserves are known to be our nation's main water source, but these reserves now are being exposed to waste or random depletion. Frankly speaking, we at the ministry have reached an impasse. We have laws and regulations governing water consumption and we notify relevant agencies of any violations concerning random drilling of artesian wells, but these agencies don't interact with us seriously because most of those committing such violations are powerful tribal leaders.

Last year, the Ministry of Water and Environment began reviewing the National Water Strategy. Please briefly describe the strategy, its significance and any relevant efforts.

Deliberations and discussions were held more than two years ago at a broad level involving relevant officials from the Ministry of Water and Environment, the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation, local authorities and both the Finance Ministry and the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation, who participated in developing the first National Water Strategy.

We're now reviewing the strategy to see how it is addressing the national water situation in light of its objectives. An initial review of the strategy, which we're conducting this year, is expected to be completed this summer.

Despite the Ministry of Water and Environment's strategic plan – once described as one of the best strategies in the Middle East – Yemen's water shortage continues to worsen. Do you have other solutions to the problem?

Any water strategy or investment in the water sector that ignores, neglects or underestimates irrigation is doomed to fail because irrigation consumes up to 90 percent or more of available water resources.

If there's neither effective participation by irrigation officials nor an agreement on a unified national vision concerning the irrigation sector's involvement, any work we undertake will be limited because we can only provide 10 percent of the water needed for industry and household use.

Last year, you called for a national conference on water management. Are you still planning to do so?

Yes, we're planning a meeting this year involving Parliament and Shoura Council members and other relevant officials. It's scheduled to take place after the National Water Strategy's annual review, which is being conducted by irrigation officials, is completed.

We're also planning to brief participants at this meeting on the strategy and its annual review, as well as suggest a consensus vision for water management because Yemen's water crisis continues to worsen.

How do you assess 2007 achievements in the areas of water, sanitation and the environment?

While we pursued some good efforts, limitations still exist, so we hope our performance will improve. For example, we assisted local corporations concerned with water and sanitation to realize several achievements and attain notable progress in water management, in addition to briefing them on how to choose competent staff to manage water consumption, which must be done neutrally and based on competence and experience.

Some problems in the water sector regarding construction work are symptomatic of poor performance by local agencies, but we're working to suggest possible solutions to such problems.

I don't think we're up to the task of passing a new water law, considered one of the region's best pieces of legislation. We're frustrated because the relevant authorities don't cooperate with us in applying the law. The entire community must apply such laws, not just the agencies that enacted them. We want people to respect the water law, which is considered one of the commendable achievements thus far reached with the aim of improving water management.

Achievements also were made in the areas of sanitation and the environment, including ratifying international conventions and agreements regarding a clean environment and reducing harmful gas pollutants. In this regard, we enacted a law to reduce harmful pollutants and keep the environment clean, in addition to encouraging the private sector's cooperation in this respect.

Concerning lead-free gasoline, we're giving top priority to the subject, in conjunction with the Ministry of Oil and Minerals, which currently is rehabilitating the Aden and Marib gasoline stations. The ministry plans to prevent the use of any gasoline containing lead because it causes problems for children's mental development.

Why is qat not allowed to enter Socotra Island and does this measure contribute to improving the island' water situation and environment?

In talking about qat, we unanimously agree that it's a destructive phenomenon. Regardless, we have nothing to do with this initiative by Socotra's local councilors to prevent the entry of qat onto the island. While it's their initiative, we're proud to see these local councilors unanimously deciding that qat may negatively impact economic conditions for its citizens, whether they are rich or poor, educated or uneducated.

Unfortunately, other concerned agencies nationwide still are waiting for the Yemeni government to enact a law banning the entry of qat into main cities; however, thus far, they've never made an initiative like that of Socotra's local councilors.

We often hear of planned investments in renewable energy, so can you tell us about any projects to be initiated in this area?

Our role in this regard is to encourage investors to initiate businesses or projects because energy production is part of the Ministry of Electricity and Energy's duties. In this regard, we have attempted to obtain a project from the Global Environment Facility to develop a renewable energy strategy.

The strategy now is complete and there's a plan for renewable energy sources in Yemen, so this was a good work. To my knowledge, the Ministry of Electricity and Energy has begun applying the strategy and is enthusiastic about producing electricity from renewable energy. Our role will be restricted to providing technical support in this area.

Until now, agricultural machinery still operates on diesel fuel, which emits carbon and harms the environment, and fuel oil still is used to generate electricity. Do you have alternatives to these methods and how is the Ministry of Electricity and Energy cooperating with you in this area?

Producing energy from traditional fuel – specifically diesel, gas, oil and lead – pollutes the air and is more costly. In Yemen, we're moving toward using natural gas to produce energy, as well as using renewable energy from the wind and solar energy. Successful achievements in this area mostly depend on mutual cooperation with the private sector.

We're required to provide a good climate for the private sector and encourage businesspeople to initiate investment projects in this area by exempting such projects from taxes and custom tariffs and helping them reach an agreement with the government to purchase energy generated by such means at competitive prices.

There is mutual cooperation between the Ministry of Electricity and Energy, the Environmental Protection Authority and the Yemeni Cabinet, which is expected to help drive forward the wheels of development in Yemen.

How do you react to the exchange of accusations between the Ministry of Water and Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation regarding the nation's water crisis?

I don't think the issue has anything to do with accusations between the leaders of both ministries regarding disagreements about the water crisis. I previously noted that irrigation consumes up to 90 percent of Yemen's available water resources, compared to only 10 percent for drinking, industrial and household purposes. We're attempting to resolve this water shortage, which is an indicator of desertification and a vulnerable economy for any country.

Yemen still uses a traditional irrigation system, whose efficiency doesn't exceed 35 percent. This is unacceptable in modern times, but it's even more unacceptable in Yemen – one of the world's most water scarce nations.

The purported dispute wasn't between the leaders of these two ministries; rather, it was between water project contractors and irrigation officials. Yemen is one of the few countries suffering scarce water resources, so providing additional or extra water resources is impossible. Consequently, we need to concentrate on controlling the growing demand for water.

The Yemeni government must begin suggesting alternatives in order to overcome this water shortage, either through desalination or through cloud-seeding techniques, which may cost a lot.

The General Irrigation Department, which is affiliated with the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation, has begun to behave as if it is a political body, at the expense of its being a technical body, because its staff don't work in line with specific objectives. Irrigation officials are to differentiate between resource management and resource usage in order to avoid any persistent mistakes or blame from other government agencies.

The role of any nation's agriculture ministry is limited to instructing farmers about the ideal use of water resources on their lands. However, a confusion regarding the duties and roles mandated to both of these ministries led to an exchange of accusations at a lower level.

Additionally, the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation faces criticism and pressure from other government agencies over its poor performance in dam construction, coupled with lack of a clear vision in this regard.

What do you recommend the Yemeni government do to save the nation's groundwater supplies from random depletion?

As far as I'm concerned, high-ranking officials should make political decisions to save groundwater supplies from random depletion and prevent influential sheikhs and tribal leaders from drilling artesian wells randomly.

The government should act seriously, just as it did in reinforcing the arms-bearing ban after it remained ineffective for a long time, thereby preventing weapons from entering the main cities. Similarly, the government needs to reinforce the new water law in order to ban random depletion of groundwater supplies because if there's a political will to reinforce the law, community members will abide by such a law.

Drilling artesian wells is done in various nations under direct government supervision, but this doesn't happen in Yemen, most notably because the private sector and businesspeople have their own rigs to drill such wells upon citizens' request. These owners give people special discounts to encourage them to dig more wells because operating such rigs is their main source of income.

In my opinion, social and economic factors, including vulnerable conditions, are responsible for this phenomenon's spread in Yemeni society. One possible solution is for the government to take control of these rigs, approve compensation for their owners and then establish a government agency in charge of designating appropriate areas for drilling wells, as well as supervising the process. If this isn't done, it will be very difficult for the government to save groundwater supplies from random depletion.

The Yemeni Cabinet issued a decree banning the use of polythene bags in popular markets, considering them harmful pollutants to the environment. Has the government taken subsequent measures to reinforce the ban and introduced a system to measure pollution?

I admit that we're not diligent in measuring air pollution. Instead, the Environmental Protection Authority should have certain devices or systems to measure air pollution. Unfortunately, government agencies are unconcerned about this issue because the state allocates nothing for the environment in its annual budget. However, we're trying to convince the government to support the Environmental Protection Authority.

Additionally, solid waste and polythene bags are responsible for environmental pollution and citizens are uncooperative with the relevant government agencies in charge of collecting solid waste and taking it to specified waste dumps.

The Ministry of Public Works and Highways is adopting a technical project funded by the German Agency for Technical Cooperation, known as GTZ, and the Japanese government seeking to offer practical experience to local staffers at various government agencies concerned with water management and protecting the environment.

Do you have any final comments?

Because Yemen is a vulnerable country suffering a worsening water shortage and environmental pollution, both the government and the local community should pay close attention and give top priority to issues related to water management and environmental protection. Environmental pollution is a new issue in Yemen, which has weak institutions requiring further support to address such an issue.