Yemeni women are the first victim of water crisis, study said [Archives:2006/996/Health]

November 6 2006

Amel Al-Ariqi
[email protected]

Yemeni women are still the first victim of water crisis and agricultural mutations, said a study titled “A brief overview of water and gender situation in Yemen.”

The study prepared as workshop paper conducted by Frederic Pelat and discussed in a workshop of Gander mainstreaming in Integrated Water Resources Management in the Arab Region. According to the study Yemeni Women are the first affected, directly or indirectly, by water depletion and the water crisis in Yemen.

Yemen is suffering from a pressing water crisis, acknowledged since the mid-90's, essentially caused by the overuse of groundwater resources for the agricultural sector. Annual withdrawals from groundwater resources are now exceeding renewable resources by up to 36 percent, said the study which added that agriculture remains an important sector with up to 77 percent of Yemen population still living in rural areas and nearly 60 percent involved in family-based and traditional farming production, where women have an essential vital role.

“It can be asserted that by tradition, Yemeni women have to guarantee the continuous good running of any household by bearing all daily tasks. Among these tasks, fetching water for domestic purposes is certainly the most sensitive issue. But it has to compete with increasing roles either in traditional dry farming or in more recent irrigated agriculture,” noted the study.

In rural areas, young girls take on the responsibility of fetching drinking water as a traditional task. Sometimes helped by boys, girls go out several times a day to fetch water for the entire family. Often walking and carrying heavy containers on their heads or riding donkeys, they spend several hours each day going long distances on uneven landscapes between houses and their water sources either a spring, a shallow well or more often a cistern, a characteristic rainwater harvesting structure called birka.

The water fetching duty is additional to other responsibilities devoted to women of all ages. They are often in charge of rearing livestock, fetching fuels, cooking or looking after the youngsters when mothers are busy in daily agricultural occupations. Adult women are more responsible for a large amount of the daily agricultural activities while men are more in charge of seasonal works. But both of them will cooperate for major operations such as harvesting.

Water related tasks have become very tough work, consuming much time of the day, causing girls to miss time from school and affecting their health, as water containers are often very heavy. There is a very strong connection between domestic water, health problems and education. Many rainwater collection structures have deteriorated and women have to look for new resources further away, beyond borders of their territory, often putting themselves at risk regarding moral customs in the area.

In agriculture, problems caused by deteriorated canals and water loss in the degraded water structures are particularly sensitive, leading to potential tensions between farmers. Here too some women have become heads of households due to an increasing migration of men and have to carry out most of the agricultural activities, including irrigation, from which they were more or less set aside in the past. In 2001, the percentage of households headed by women in rural areas was 12.2 percent, but it was 10.4 percent in urban areas, according to the “Women and men in Yemen, Statistical portrait” painted by the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation, Central Statistical Organization (CSO), with the support of the Dutch cooperation and ESCWA.

“Traditionally absent from irrigation operations, women have necessarily been more and more involved due to many men migrating to cities or Gulf countries to find new sources of income,” the study added.

Studies on women's and men's role in agriculture in Yemen are rare and mostly outdated, but the results of this study might still be valid today.

Women are the ones to organize water allocation and distribution for the various needs of the house and the family every day. They evaluate quantity, quality and prioritize water for drinking. Then they keep water for people's hygiene. They will prioritize remaining quantities for washing the food, cleaning the dishes, cleaning the house, and might keep an amount of water for some animals. They will finally reuse remaining waters to water some plants mainly grown in pots or in very small plots beside the house, vegetables or flowers, according to their needs and preferences.

In the urban regions, the poorest women have the same preoccupations as any other women in rural areas regarding water: fetching the precious and bad quality resource from source in the city – mostly wells. Others will benefit from the municipality water projects which periodically supply houses or buildings with water that has to be stored by all means not to be lost. Some families have one or several tanks automatically storing water. Poorer women, as it is the case in Sana'a Old City, have the responsibility to use containers to collect and store the running water when the resource is flowing. These women have to be available and act very quickly and efficiently during these moments.