Saeed Al-Hakeemi: “If every community leader pushed locals to build small dams by self-help initiatives, our water crisis would be resolved.” [Archives:1997/43/Interview]

October 27 1997

Mr. Saeed Al-Hakeemi is one of the senior politicians of Yemen. He has served in many capacities for many years, holding such posts as governor, minister, ambassador, etc. His most recent job was as assistant secretary-general of the Supreme Elections Committee, with direct responsibility for the media and external observers. Today, Mr. Al-Hakeemi is a member of the Consultative Council. But that is only one side of his interests. The man is also heavily involved in many voluntary and self-help initiatives. He is the chairman of the Yemeni Red Crescent Society. He is also the Head of the Coordinating Body of several NGOs and cooperatives in Hugarriah, Taiz. He himself is the chairman of an NGO in the area around Turba. One of the key projects Mr. Al-Hakeemi is now promoting is the construction of a dam in his region. He feels this is the best way to remedy the water crisis. Dr. Salah Haddah, Managing Editor of Yemen Times talked to him extensively and filed the following interview.
Q: Water is becoming a major concern in Yemen. What is being done in this regard? A: To start with, Yemen is a semi-arid country. Thus it is not well-endowed in water supply. There are no perennial rivers, no lakes, and no abundance in rainfall. The balance between supply and demand in the past had been kept because of wise water use policies in society. In the recent past, water-use has been very bad. We have wasteful in many ways, especially in the irrigation of fields. Even in the cities, water consumption has risen to an alarming level. To add insult to injury, we have discontinued the extremely vital water harnessing mechanisms of the past. By this, I mean building small water reservoirs and dams. As a result, the water situation has been precarious as this generation of users has been exhausting one aquifer after another of underground water collected over centuries.
Q: Could you tell us more about the haphazard exhaustion of underground water? A: There is a rampant and harmful trend in drilling water wells. You can sees the countryside, and even the cities, pierced with all kinds of water wells. The Consultative Council is now evolving a proper policy for this matter. It is going to be hard, but we have to bite the bullet in order to salvage whatever is left of the underground water reservoirs. In the absence of direct and active supervision, there are thousands of wells which are being constantly drilled all over the country. Irrigating that cursed shrub called qat is using up plenty of water. Planting qat has become a major culprit in the water depletion, thus threatening the future of the whole nation.
Q: How do you propose to persuade farmers to stop growing qat? A: We, of course, cannot force people to do anything. People must start to think seriously about the future of their children and grandchildren. If matters continue in the same way, future generations will not have any water left to live on. If qat-growing is to be allowed to continue, it should be based on rain water only. The underground water resources must be set aside for drinking purposes only. It is the responsibility of all citizens to conserve water – our most precious national resource.
Q: What is the answer? A: I think the answer is to build little dams and block the rain-water that flows to the sea or the desert. It is not an accident that this country survived over the ages. We do not need to re-invent anything.
Q: I understand you are personally setting an example in this? A: Yes. I believe if influential people and community elders push the locals to take the initiative to conserve water use on the one hand, and help harness rain water on the other, a solution will be at hand. If each community builds a small dam, then there is no worry about the future. I had previously instigated and supervised the construction of a cistern to collect rainwater for use of livestock and to wash clothes in my region in Hugarriah. But the problem has recently become worse. We are now in the process of constructing a larger dam to serve four regions – Madhahij, Akahila, Rabbaisa, and Ahkoom. It will help replenish the depleted water wells. The Thabet Brothers Group of Companies has donated YR 5 million for building the dam. This covers a good part of the cost. The group also contributes to the clearing and dredging of wells and improving the water supply network.
Q: How much will this dam cost and how many people will it serve? A: The cost is estimated at over 10 million riyals. Not less than 20,000 people will directly benefit from it. It will also help reduce soil erosion caused by torrents, which will be kept at bay by the new dam. The lake or reservoir behind the dam will have a surface area of about 2500 square meters. The depth will be dictated by technical considerations and geography. Above all, the new dam will encourage many families to stay in the area and tend to their small farms and livestock.
Q: Is this dam the end of the rainbow for your region? A: This has to be part of a comprehensive program for dam construction. In the old days, people used to build small dams to better control and utilize flood water. With the introduction of piped water supplies, people started to neglect dam construction. Thus, many of the old dams went into disrepair.
Q: What other measures other than dam construction can be taken to alleviate the water crisis? A: Public awareness is key in our fight. Media campaigns will play a major role in this effort. Improved irrigation techniques is another part of the solution. Drip irrigation, for example, could be introduced. In households, water taps with special stopping valves can be utilized to conserve water. Finally, this matter is the responsibility of all people – citizens as well as official. In addition to the authorities, the general public has to shoulder responsibility for water conservation. The Ministry of Endowments and Religious Guidance, for example, is planning to install special water taps in mosques around the country to help conserve water, used for ablutions before prayers. All these issues and several others are now being seriously discussed by parliament, Council of Ministers, the Consultative Council, and other bodies.
Q: You are the chair of an effort of several NGOs and cooperatives to coordinate their work. Could you tell us more about your experience? A: It is a new experience. The Coordination Council is an umbrella for six NGOs and cooperatives. It works to coordinate their activities in water, road, health educational, and other projects. Shared projects are jointly managed and maintained. This has helped by reducing overhead costs, and has allowed us to benefit from economies of scale. I want to stress here that each NGO and cooperative retains its identity, independence and its projects.
Q: Let’s move to another issue. How do you evaluate the last parliamentary elections? You were a key member of the Supreme Elections Committee. A: As an election administering body, the Supreme Elections Committee benefited a lot from its experience in the 1993 elections. We were able to issue cards early for all eligible voters who registered in the elections rosters. We asked candidates to adopt special symbols to identify them, for the benefit of illiterate voters. We invited local monitoring bodies for the first time. We ran periodic briefings for the media. We allocated special files containing information about and instruction regarding every constituency. Observers were able to inspect these files. We did everything we could to raise the level of trust and confidence in the elections. I think we did a good job. The electoral process was conducted within the stipulations of the law. Everything was above board. However, some political parties, especially those which boycotted the elections, tried to discredit the outcome. Of course, we accept that there were shortcomings, given our short experience in this field. The country’s performance will improve with time.
Q: The nation is celebrating the anniversaries of the Revolution. Do you think we have reason to celebrate? A: A lot has been achieved during the last 35 years of the revolution. Our achievements went beyond the expectation of the people who started the revolution. Yemen has changed for the better, beyond recognition. The achievements cannot be enumerated. Of course, there is still a lot to be accomplished and many ambitions to be realized. But this is limited by our absorptive capacity, not only the limited resources. Too much change compressed in too short a time, even if feasible, is dangerous and could backfire. I believe in gradual change that does not shock or alienate any important segment of society. This is the right approach.
Q: The proposed administrative re-division of the country has resulted in much controversy. Where does this stand now? A: Let me start with some basic points. All parties agree that there is need to re-structure our administrative districts. This is dictated by the need for better efficiency, more harmonious blocks, socio-tribal integration, and more meaningful nation-building based on a decentralized system. The original idea of re-zoning the country started several years ago. A special committee, headed by Qadhi Abdulakreem Al-Arashi, was formed to establish the criteria for the new divisions. That was a decade ago. The committee’s gave its evaluations. Then following unity, a new committee was formed, this time headed by Sheikh Abdullah Al-Ahmar. This committee was paralyzed by political disputes. The Consultative Council has now given a fresh proposal which is being discussed by the government. I think we should interact positively with this effort.