Mutahar Zeid Mutahar:  “Qat farmers drain most of the nation’s underground water.” [Archives:1999/03/Interview]

January 18 1999

What is a precious resource any where in the world. It is especially critical in the Arab World which is mostly desert land. As a result, water management is one of the most important skills and sciences. 
The Republic of Yemen, which is already threatened by water scarcities, has been aware of this problem. Several of our cities are already plagued with water shortages. In addition, uncontrolled extraction of underground reservoirs has depleted this precious resource. This is clear from the falling level of water table.  
That is why it has created several institutions to harness rain water, better use of water in farm needs, and generally ensure a more efficient management of water. 
Mutahar Zeid Mutahar, 40, is a civilian engineer. He has been working with the General Authority for Rural Development since 1988. He currently heads the Irrigation Department at the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation. 
Ismail Al-Ghabiry of Yemen Times talked to him about his duties and water management in Yemen. 
Q: What are the responsibilities of the Irrigation Deparment? 
A: It is responsible for numerous issues including: 
1-Proposing and executing irrigation regulations, plans and programs in accordance with the Ministry’s general policy and water planning. 
2-Drafting feasibility studies of irrigation projects in addition to their detailed designs. 
3-Encouraging land reclamation and protection against desertification in coordination with concerned parties. 
4-Setting proper irrigation methods by way of analyzing the soil and water then determining quantity and quality of water needed by each crop according to the area’s climate. 
5-Planning and designing irrigation networks and encouraging the use of modern ones. 
6-Participating in the preparation of water studies and working out plans for the exploitation and administration of water resources in addition to limiting its uses to cope with the demographic, agricultural and industrial expansion in cooperation with the concerned parties. 
7-Classifying agricultural lands and launching topographic surveys and drawing various maps targeting best exploitation of those lands and protecting them against desertification. 
8-Working out plans and designs for suitable irrigation methods and offering advice and guidance to citizens in various governorates in the republic. 
9-Wording studies and research papers on the use of traditional and modern irrigation methods and documenting them. 
10-Supervising irrigation activities in all agricultural areas and operating irrigation networks. 
The irrigation sector is the biggest consumer of water resources in the country, a main reason of which is poor awareness, causing depletion of most water basins and increasing level of salt. That phenomenon could lead to serious demographic changes that would negatively affect the economic and social development of the population in the rural areas. The Department’s policy aim at achieving rational use of available water resources through balancing demand with the available reservoirs. 
Q: What are the projects carried out by the Department? 
A: The Department supervises the drafting of studies, plans and programs and overlooks their implementation. It further operates existing water installations such as the Abyan Delta and others in Tihama. It is difficult to pinpoint all works launched by the Irrigation Department but we can give examples for those done in 1998. The Department launched studies and planning of 26 projects, 19 of which for dams and barriers. It executed 66 projects in fields of topographic surveys, including 46 for dams and water barriers. It also designed 165 projects, grouping 116 for dams or barriers and 38 for tanks and one for a canal. 
As far as supervising projects under construction is concerned, which is the most important part in our job and entails great efforts due to absence of necessary requirements to cover technical aspects of that supervision. We have three kinds of those projects overseen in the past few years. The first is financed by the dams project, which is an investment program. It includes 30 projects divided into 28 dams and water blocks and two tanks at a total cost of 897 million rials. 
The second model is totally financed by the agricultural production encouragement fund and groups 28 projects also divided into 26 dams and water blocks and two tanks with a total cost of 989 million rials. 
The third type is jointly financed by the abovementioned fund and the private sector. Those are simple projects in which the beneficient citizen is the main factor behind their execution with the state’s participation through that fund. There are 43 projects here including 17 dams and water barriers, 21 tanks, 5 irrigation canals with a total value of 443 million rials out of which citizens pay 134 million and the rest covered by the fund. 
Q: The President had reiterated importance of building dams, especially with the availability of loans for that purpose and in view of Yemen’s water shortage, what do you have to say here? 
A: It is true that the political leadeship, headed by the President, give utmost concern to the water policy since it is a basic cornerstone in the country’s economic development. The President’s speeches and statements gave importance to construction of dams since they serve a large sector of the society, helps stability, solves water shortage and refreshes the depleting underground water reservoirs. 
Due to the high cost of building dams that could not be covered domestically, the Ministry of Agriculture in coordination with the Ministry of Planning share in covering the costs in accordance with available programs. Around 50% of the agricultural fund’s assistance goes to irrigation projects. Hence, it is clear that the concerned authorities pay much attention to that issue within available capabilities and the country’s general policy. However, there should be a comprehensive water strategy that takes into consideration the fact that level of water reservoirs in areas of demographic and agricultural activity is starting to drop which heralds negative social and economic damages. The state must endeavor to draw a national strategy tackling water shortage and the best exploitation of available resources. I wish to clarify here that in a number of governorates, which have large agricultural areas and yield crops important to food security, there are huge water projects such as water barriers that have been constructed a long time ago. Those projects have shared in demographic stability and they should be periodically maintained, but there is no budget allocated for that purpose to ensure their continuation. To put things short, there should be enough financing for the establishment of water projects in accordance with plans and programs of a national strategy and for the preservation of available projects. 
Q: The government’s five-year plan call for a 7% growth rate in water resources, how can that be achieved? 
A: Domestic demand on water has notably risen as a result of the rapid population increase which almost doubled since the sixties. We have an annual population increase of 3.7%, which is one of the highest in the whole world. One of the most affected areas here is water, especially for cultivation, since our water resources are limited, our country is located in a dry zone and has no rivers. Hence, water sources are limited and we have to make the best use of what we have through preserving available water installations and constructing projects that make use of rain water which is currently wasted in the sea. Maintaining old irrigation systems along with elevating irrigation competency through the use of modern techniques and networks should be made in addition to avoiding the cultivation of crops that consume a lot of water and resort to those which need only low quantities. New projects, such as dams and canals should be established in accordance with a pre-planned study to feed underground reservoirs and to benefit from them in irrigating land plots instead of draining the underground water. Agriculture depending on rain should be encouraged and a rational agricultural policy that takes into consideration the water shortage in the country must be pursued in a bid to reach food and water security at the same time. It is imperative here to pass legislations severely restricting exploitation of underground water reservoirs for irrigation. It is noteworthy that out of the 1,663,858 hectares of lands suitable for cultivation in Yemen, 1,154,958 hectares are cultivated and provides work for 50% of manpower in the country. 
Q: How can we overcome the problem of using underground water for the irrigation of qat, vegetables and fruits? 
A: As I have mentioned before we can limit the drain of underground water through avoiding the cultivation of qat. 
Q: Why do think is the reason for the decreasing concern in planting trees? 
A: This question should be answered by other concerned parties, but I think that preserving and expanding the country’s flora is the responsibility of each and every Yemeni individual whatever his post may be because it is a national duty. It is not the sole concern of the Agriculture Ministry particularly when there is a vast cultivated area that is difficult to follow up by one party. Cutting trees to use its wood for fuel has notably diminished after the availability of gas, but trees should still be planted especially in big cities in view of its importance for environment and treated water can be used in irrigating those trees and parks. 
Q: What about the strategy of rationalizing water usage in Yemen? 
A: I would like to point out that the Irrigation Department is not concerned with the drilling or deepening of wells but rather it is responsible for the construction of water installations to feed underground wells and for exploitation of dams as an alternate option for wells. Yet there are many areas which do not have such alternatives and citizens should understand seriousness of draining the underground reservoir and should resort to modern irrigation methods. Our mission here is to offer advice, technical assistance and financial support. We suffer from poor technical and financial potentialities in addition to absence of specialized cadres and the necessary data base to bring about a comprehensive study. We do not have modern equipment that enable us to collect information easily. However, despite all these shortcomings our technicians exert utmost efforts making use of the available potentials.