Thirst for water and development leads to conflict in Yemen [Archives:2003/642/Health]

June 19 2003

Mohammed Al-Qadhi
Al-Haima, Yemen)Al-Haima was once famous for its agriculture, especially grains. But now, the land has deteriorated, water is scarce, and the people are poorer.
“We are now short of water for irrigation, and we have to wait until it rains to plant some seeds,” says Mohammed Ahmad Ghalib, a farmer. In the past, he recalls, there was plenty of water and it flowed on the surface of the ground.
According to the villagers, the city of Ta'iz sunk several new wells into the Al-Haima area after assuring the farmers that it would only tap into the deep water, leaving the surface water for the villagers. The city also pledged to compensate the villagers, by providing them with electricity and water services, and new schools. But that did not happen.
“We used to have hand-dug wells for irrigation,” says Mohammed Rasam. “But they went dry. Now, we are suffering. We have no water for agriculture or to drink.”
Abdullah Kassim, an unemployed farmer says, “They recently installed water and electricity systems and now they want to bill us for our own water. We cannot spend the money we get from hard work on water bills. What will remain for our kids?”
The tension over the water ultimately led to clashes that called for high-level government intervention. “Ordinary people could not do anything,” said Ghanim Mohammed Naser, who is in charge of a generator for pumping water for the village. “Those who resisted were arrested and put in prisons; those who refused to allow the drilling of wells were detained.” Consequently, he said, the people have refused to pay for the diesel for the generator, which is not working.
But this is hardly the only time the government has had to intervene in water disputes. In 1999, it took 700 soldiers to quell the fighting that claimed six lives and injured 60 others in clashes that erupted between two villages fighting over a local spring near Ta'iz.
In the 1999 dispute, the village of Al-Marzuh believed it was entitled to exclusive rights from a spring because it was located on their land, while Quradah, a neighboring village, believed they had the rights to the water based on a 50-year-old court verdict acknowledging their rights to the waters. The dispute festered and then erupted.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh had to intervene in the conflict; he summoned the sheikhs of the two villages to the capital, and sorted out the problem by dividing the water into halves.

Little water, huge demand
Disputes over water are not uncommon in Yemen. Water resources in Yemen are low, even by Middle East standards. In Yemen, the estimated per capita availability of renewable water resources was only about 133 cubic metres in 1994 and could be even lower now. The figure for the Middle East and North Africa region is 1,250 cubic metres and the world average is 7,500 cubic metres.
Water shortages are reaching emergency levels in some areas. According to a 2001 government report, there are absolute water shortages in Ta'iz and Sana'a, the capital, where public water supply is available for only 20 days and five days a month, respectively. At the same time, water consumption continues to rise each year, and now, is well above renewable water resources. Rainfall ranges between 50 and 200 millimetres in most of the areas, rising to 800 millimetres per annum in exceptional cases in some areas.
A high population growth rate of 3.5 percent each year has led to an increase in the demand for food and has caused migration to cities)which have grown at twice the national population rate. As a result, the demands of irrigated farms and thirsty cities have caused water consumption to rise sharply. The problem has been further compounded by the needs of industrialization and the further reduction in the supply of freshwater in some areas due to polluted aquifers.

A plan for water management
A major problem in Yemen was the absence of a central water authority and national water policy. Reform of Yemen's water sector has been a major goal of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in partnership with the Government of the Netherlands over the last decade. Recognizing the critical nature of water in Yemen, the project has fostered extended debate and discussion involving all major stakeholders in the water sector, resulting in a government-formulated blue print for water sector reforms. Among other things, the blue print calls for consolidating the water resources management functions under a single authority and putting in place legislative framework to support its functions.
The new agency, called the National Water Resources Authority, was established in 1995 and for the first time in Yemen, strategic considerations were given priority over competing interests. “The goal is to develop human resources and the institutional capacities for water management,” says James Rawley, UNDP Resident Representative in Yemen.

Good governance to resolve conflict
Starting in 1997, a five-year program to support the new authority, augmented by technical assistance from the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, achieved several important milestones in terms of improving water governance and water resources management in Yemen. The entire country has now been divided into 14 water management zones based on hydro-geological criteria, providing the foundation for water resources management planning on catchment basis. The Water Authority has also formulated the national water policy and national water strategy.
The most important achievement of the Water Authority has been the enactment of the Water Law in August 2002, which set the rules and regulations for water usage and defines specific rights and penalties.
“Before it was difficult to take any action against violations,” says Jamal Mohammed Abdu, the Authority Chairman. “With this law, we can now start implementing our policies and strategies.”
According to Mr. Abdu, the Authority is now working with various government agencies and local administrations to implement the new law and he expects that this will result in more coherent activities that encourage water efficiency. In addition, water plans are being drafted for most regions in the country.
The plans aim to establish the institutional mechanisms for resolving water conflict by replacing the traditional top-down water management approach with a system where the water agencies and the local communities work together to manage the catchment water resources. It will also seek to define water rights in order to minimize and resolve conflicts over water resources.
In the new plans for Ta'iz, a proposed system of legally recognized groundwater rights calls for safeguarding a lifeline supply of water for the poor, but makes the bulk of the remaining allotted water quotas tradable. The essence of the scheme is that it creates a win-win situation for the poor in the transfer of water from agriculture to other uses by creating a market in water rights.

)Mohammed Hatem Al-Qadhi is a correspondent for the Saudi-based Riyadh Daily and a Senior Editor at Yemen Times.
# This report has been reproduced from Choices magazine published by the UNDP in the USA.