Yemen's irrigation system: invisible victim of the war

Water infrastructure has been hit by war in Yemen's food-basket, affecting farmer income and food security

By Frank van Steenbergen
Last Updated: Wednesday 03 May 2017

Photographs for destroying the headquarter of Tihama Development Authority

For reasons no one can explain, a war has been raging in Yemen since 2013. The culprits are clear, the solutions seem simple—just stop and do something else. But tragically no one seems to bother to resolve. 

The airstrikes and ground fights have by now caused an estimated of 10,000 victims. Compare this to 350death during the struggle in the Arab Spring that preceded the war. Yet next to this number there is another tragedy – those who suffer, get sick and hungry and die from the destruction of vital infrastructure water facilities: drinking water, water treatment, irrigation.

The war has destroyed crucial services in the region. An estimated 8.5 million people, for instance, have no longer access to safe drinking water, resulting in higher morbidity. Other victim of the war has been “spate irrigation”—the use short duration flood waters to irrigate land. The ancient Yemeni practice makes use of the short terms floods in normally dry rivers to water crops and grazing areas and to recharge groundwater. It covers an estimated 200,000 hectares in Yemen.

Spate irrigation systems were attacked in the bombing campaigns. In war, however, such civil structures are not supposed to be targeted by any one. According to the 1977 Protocol Additional to Geneva Conventions[1] in Article 14, starvation as a means of combat is not allowed: ‘’it is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove, or render useless objects indispensable for survival of the civilian population - such as foodstuffs, crops, livestock, water installations, and irrigation works’’.  This has not happened in war-torn Yemen: Irrigation infrastructure was targeted directly, making systems hard to operate, causing more neglect.

Agriculture is vital for food security in Yemen. More than 70 per cent of its people depend on agriculture either directly or indirectly as their economic foothold. Yet the harmless sector has been brutalised like anything else. The war damage to the agricultural sector is already more than US $16 billion.

Spate irrigation systems in the coastal red sea zone of Yemen, the Tihama, made it the food basket of the country. Tihama produced most of the grains, livestock and export fruits in the  country. But water system infrastructure has been hit by the war while Tihama Development Authority’s equipment and machines stores have been directly destroyed. Below are the images  of Wadi Siham branch in Waqer Area of the Tihama Development Authority that has been wilfully destroyed.  In addition to the physical damage a lot of documents and computer files, containing data and studies carried out since many decades have also been lost. 

Photographs shows the damages which destroyed water infrastructure in Wadi Siham

The indirect repercussions of the war are even larger. Flood-based irrigation systems need to be cleaned regularly to allow the flood water to flow. The lack of maintenance due to war, however, has led to accumulation of sediments  and harmful tree growth in the bottom of canals. As a result, the Wadi Sihamspate irrigation system runs at 50 per cent of its capacity, as confirmed during meetings with farmers and Water User Association members.

It is descent into poverty: half the production in the country’s food basket has gone; food prices escalated; income severed and employment opportunities disappeared.

Situation on-ground

The socio-economic situation in Tihama's wadis is similar, where the share of land owners is less the 30 per cent. Poverty rate is more than 80 per cent, due to the scarcity of resources and the multilayered crisis in the country. We interviewed several farmers.

Here is Hasan Qadhy, one of the richest farmers in Wadi Siham. Hassan is the head of an agricultural association. He owns 109 ha of land, which he uses to cultivate mango, tobacco and fodder. But Qadhy has skipped the last two crops after floodwater supply reduced and pumping groundwater to became expensive. The war curtailed his income, but he his land provided a buffer amid increased prices And unavailability of fuel.

Photographs for the meeting with WUAs and farmers in Wadi Siham

The second farmer we met was aAbdo Ali. He has about 0.65 ha of land and mainly cultivates fodder. He also owns three goats and fifteen sheep. His yield can supply food and fodder but for less than three months a year. Unlettered himself, Ali tries to send his sons to high school. But the war has shaken him. Producing fodder has become costly and the produce has few takers. Income from the farm is not sufficient, and Ali needs another source for income, which simply is not there. He has to borrow money or sell animals and other assets to make do.

Worst still is the fate of the many tenants and farm workers, who constitute 70 per cent of the agricultural population. Sharif and his family of six, were poor to start with. Now his options as farm worker have shrunk. In the farms of rich farmers, some economic ventures have stopped—cultivation of fodder (not profitable) or tobacco (cannot afford to pump groundwater).

Come July, a new flood season will start in Wadi Sihamm. The period used to be of anticipation and blessing, but this year will be different. Flood may bring little respite with ill-prepared systems. They may instead suffer from the sediment-laden floodwater running across them.

We hope that the energies put in a senseless war are directed to end the conflict. We should enactArticle 14 of the Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions on the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.

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