Water, Water Everywhere, But Where is it All Going? [Archives:2001/34/Focus]

August 20 2001

By: Hassan Al-Haifi
Thanks to Allah, Almighty, Yemen has seen rain almost on a daily basis for some three weeks now. This blessing from Allah brings to mind the beautiful illustration of the Yemen of ancient times, which the Quran so beautifully described as the “Land of the Two Paradises…”. While we should undoubtedly be happy with just being able to see one paradise in this land, which is beset by so many problems, natural and otherwise – human -it goes without saying that this blessing of Allah brought to many people of this rugged country a sense of relief and reassurance that God, after all, is looking after the people of Yemen, since they never lose faith in his mercy and kindness, even though they may have forgotten that such things exist, with all the abusiveness and oppression one witnesses reflected in the many wretched faces one encounters everywhere. Yes, if men have forgotten that this is a good land and capable of fulfilling the needs of its people, because a few of its evil mongers have taken the heart and soul out of life, God Almighty knows that the overwhelming majority of the people have faith in Him and if He can relieve them of the drought that has rendered them helpless and made their land an arid waste, He is also able to bring an end to those who have exploited the country’s resources in a meaningless and wasteful manner and channeled them to fulfill their own narrow minded ambitions of lavish wealth and splendor.
In any case, we hope that God will guide us out of the abyss of political and economic disintegration and enlighten our leaders to more productive and fruitful endeavors that will give them a place in history and in our hearts, which would be truly more rewarding for them than all the material splendor they can muster up, without really even knowing what to do with it anyway.
The fact of the matter is that the water problem in Yemen, notwithstanding the blessing that God has bestowed upon us, is a serious and a critical factor in determining the expected course the country will take in the future and the calamity that awaits us, unless everyone in the country does his share of the task of doing everything we can to alleviate the serious water crisis, which already has shown its dangerous inclination.
The most important thing to realize is that Yemen, just from the standpoint of its water situation is not geared for rapidly growing urban metropolises, as has been mistakenly allowed to happen in Sana’a and the other major towns. The water studies carried as early as the Early Seventies, recommended that the population of the city of Sana’a should not be allowed to exceed 200,000 people, for the water that was then available would only accommodate such a population for only 30 years, if left unreplenished. Yet, the population of the city has been allowed to climb to a million souls. This produces a series of frightening scenarios for the not too distant future of people not just fighting over plots of real estate here and there, but also for their drinking water as well. The circumstances leading to this mismanaged urban population explosion are many and complex, including the centralization of authority and the poor economic and agricultural policies pursued by the Government over so many years, but surely reflect a disregard for the obvious warning signs of the dangers that lie ahead, as our unrecoverable water basins dry up, and water races to stay above gasoline in cost to an already poverty stricken nation.
Thank you, Lord Al-Mighty, but we must bear in mind that a majority of the water that God has been kind enough to provide us is going to speed out into the Empty Quarter Dessert or rush down the Wadis of Tihama to the Red Sea, taking with it a lot of valuable irreplaceable silt, and further eroding the productivity of the meager cultivable area of the country.
It is a wonder that even though the climatic conditions of Yemen were more conducive for more rainwater per annum than we are getting now, and the population of the country was a lot less than it is now, our forefathers had the great wisdom of mustering up all their engineering and agricultural knowledge towards efficient water management. But with the obvious dangers that we can now foresee, there is very little effort to harness all the energy and available resources towards proper water harvesting techniques that will allow us to invest the wonderful blessing of the rainfall we had over the last three weeks. It is hard to imagine how much water is going to be lost to the sea and the desert, but surely had the traditional techniques been mobilized on a massive scale to work towards saving as much of this water as possible or to help channel it to the basins that will store it for future investment, we might truly have been able to have exploited God’s recent blessing as much as possible, to alleviate less bountiful years of rain in the future.
About the only effort worth making note of in this direction is the praised efforts of the Social Development Fund in encouraging local rural communities to direct their strides towards maintaining as much of this traditional water harvesting technology as the SFD can reach, before those who know how to exploit it leave the Earth. The efforts of the SFD are to be commended, and for sure the communities that did have a chance to participate in the scheme will be thankful to the SFD and its able Executive Managing Director, and now Minister of Social Affairs, Dr. Abdul Karim Ismael Al-Arhabi for directing the Fund’s and the energies of the SFD in this direction.
But to have to rely on God’s mercy, for Yemen’s water requirements would be living in illusions, because the present extraordinary rainfall, is exactly that – extraordinary. There are many important measures that need to be taken, many of which do not necessarily have to be directly related to water management techniques, such as controlling the accelerated growth of the population in general and in the urban centers in particular. This means disseminating development throughout the country, by empowerment of the population by decentralized elected local rule, and insisting on local management and ownership of community projects that foster rejuvenation of traditional water harvesting technology and introducing whatever modern inputs can be helpful in the operation and maintenance of these water harvesting systems.
On the other hand, with all the water institutions that exist to date, it is no sign of encouragement that the media channels are void of any intensive public awareness schemes to persuade people of the serious dangers that lie ahead in Yemen’s water situation, and the absence of this effort by the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation in its agriculture extension efforts lends credence to the belief that the Ministry is forgetting one of its most critical tasks. The agricultural sector uses up 90% of the mined groundwater annually and surely, that percentage is wasteful and needs to be cut considerably, through use of more efficient irrigation methods and regulation of underground water investment in the agriculture sector.
In any case, we must thank the Lord for reminding us that indeed Yemen can again take on its beautiful Arabia Felix image, even if for just a fleeting refreshing moment of our trying times.