Drought and floods in Yemen affect food security
SANA'A, Aug 26 - Extreme weather conditions and environmental changes are confusing farmers and threatening livelihoods, further aggravating Yemen's already fragile food security.
These new threats come as aid runs dangerously low and authorities ponder solutions.
The Middle East in general is suffering from drought and the effects of climate change. Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Cyprus, Iran, Yemen and other areas have each been dealing with decreased rainfall, reduced water storage, and in some cases, declared drought, leaving many countries dangerously dependant on food aid.
Philip Ward, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe, was in Yemen for the first time earlier this month to meet with senior government officials, donors, and partners, including the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
During his stay he visited a number of agricultural centers in Dhamar and Hodeida and spoke to farmers about the impact of this year's drought on agriculture. He also discussed the way ahead towards ensuring the country's food security.
"Globally the issue of food security is more important than ever. It's being discussed at the highest levels," Ward said.
Currently, Yemen imports 90 percent of its food.
Farmers grow weary
Due to lack of research, there are no numbers that accurately describe how drought is affecting Yemenis. However, one thing is clear; Yemeni farmers' attitudes towards planting have changed.
"The Ministry of Agriculture has a project together with the FAO to provide subsidized crop seeds such as sorghum and barley to farmers. A good indicator of drought is that farmers aren't even coming to buy the seeds," Ward said.
"The farmers weren't coming to buy the seeds because they didn't feel that it's worth the investment," he noted, explaining that sorghum and barley are the types of crops looked at to provide food security.
"The huge concern is that the rain this year is too little too late," Ward continued. "Farmers are worried that rains at this point will not sustain their crops."
In Hodeida, Ward met with farmers at the Tihama Development Authority. "The farmers that we are worried about the most are those that are completely dependent on rain fed agriculture," he said.
"One such farmer that we met lived with his brother, but the total extended family was 22 people. He is entirely dependent on rain and he said he didn't anticipate any problem this year. Now he has to sell off livestock to feed his family," related Ward.
"That worries us because when farmers start doing that, the very things that should protect and help them next year are now lost. These are the people we are trying to support the most."
Some families in various governorates including Dhamar, Al-Mahwit, Hajja, Taiz, Lahj and Dhal'e have already left their homes in search of greener pastures and wetter lands.
"It's a concern when people start moving off the land to urban centers or where water is available," Ward said. "We are concerned about the social tension and fragmentation that could happen as a result."
Following a year with no rainfall in 2008, thousands of residents in Mahwit governorate, some 113 km northwest of the capital Sana'a, have been displaced after they were forced to abandon their mountainous villages and move to cities.
Deadly clashes over water sources have also been reported this year.
Food running out
In July, a shortage of funds forced the WFP to halve its rations to 95,000 war-affected people in Yemen, many of whom depend entirely on food assistance.
The WFP's resources are running dangerously low. Overall, the program is facing a shortfall of US 20 million or 36 percent of its total needs for 2009.
In June 2009, the WFP had to suspend food assistance programs linked to health and education which had benefited 815,000 of the most vulnerable Yemenis.
"Our programs are designed to support a developmental process rather than a dependency on food aid," Ward said.
He related a success story of the Food for Education program. "Our deputy country director in Yemen went to a health clinic. The nurse that treated him had been a recipient of the food for education program. A few years ago, she might not have had that opportunity that she did."
Unfortunately, in June the WFP was forced to temporarily halt its Food for Education programs due to a lack of funds.
During his visit to Dhamar and Hodeida, Ward went with representatives from the FAO and the Ministry of Agriculture. The Yemeni Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation arranged this mission that was led by Dr. Mansoor Al-Hoshabi, the Minister of Agriculture and Irrigation, as well as Ibrahim Thabet, an assistant representative of the FAO.
Beneficial allocation of resources
Yemen is getting hotter by the year. According to the National Council for Climate, there has been an increase in average temperatures in the capital Sana'a over the last 20 years, though they do not have an exact percentage due to a lack of research.
Yemen is under "serious water stress" according to a report by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UN-ESCWA). Former Prime Minister Abdul-Karim Al-Iryani has warned that the country could face famine as soon as next year, calling upon the international community to support Yemen.
Climate change during the last few years and especially in 2009 is a real concern for Yemen, particularly if the frequency of precipitation events continues to diminish, putting agriculture in peril and potentially leading to a catastrophic drought.
Agriculture accounts for about 90 percent of Yemen's groundwater consumption, and up to 40 percent of it is used just for growing qat.
Dr. Naef Abu Lohom, Head of the Research and Studies Department at the Water and Environment Center with the University of Sana'a, explained that there are two main water seasons in Yemen and that rainfall patterns are changing.
"The rainy season in Yemen is usually from March to May and July to September," he said, "but rains are now starting in August.
"We are noticing the late onset of the rains, but we still need research to determine if this is due to climate change," Lohom said. "We do not have statistics from before and so we cannot compare."
However, he explained that there are some rainfall areas that are currently being monitored. "In the future we can fully assess the changes. There's certainly been a change in agricultural seasons, but we cannot attribute this to climate change due to lack of scientific research," he noted.
Much like the rest of the region, the climate change impacts facing Yemen are drought and desertification on the one hand and torrential downpours on the other, rains that are useless because they are not harvested or channeled in any way.
If these rains are taken advantage of they would help to ease drought. "The concept of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) is still new to Yemen and needs to be applied by the water sector here in order to strike a balance between water replenishment and usage," Lohom said.
"Our geographical location in an arid area makes it especially difficult for Yemen. It rains four months in a year, if we are optimistic. The rest of the year is dry. The population increase, especially in the mountainous area where up to 90 percent of the population density distribution is located, further aggravates the issue," he added.
"Most of the population is also concentrated in the major cities. This puts pressure on ground water. That's why we have an annual drop of four to six meters in most of our groundwater resources," Lohom explained.
"We are in urgent need for applying the concept of IWRM, in all its aspects," he stressed.
"This cannot be solved by the government itself," he noted, adding that the community needs to play a larger role. Lohom cited some examples where communities in Dhamar, Hadramout and Taiz have been empowered in water management and monitoring through establishing associations.
The October 2008 flooding disaster which centered on the Hadramout governorate affected about a third of the country and triggered a major international response. Many residents there still depend on aid.
"The WFP has provided assistance to 43,000 people affected by floods in Hadramout and Al-Mahra," according to WFP Yemen.
Assessing the drought
The WFP discussed water management systems at length with the Tihama Development Authority and the Ministry of Agriculture.
"There's been a lot of investment in irrigation and water systems. The problem is that even with that very good investment, if there's not enough water it doesn't matter how much you've invested in it," Ward said, explaining that this is part of the problem and that investment isn't enough.
"With the irrigation systems that exist, there will be farming in areas where people have access to irrigation canals and pumps where the infrastructure is already set up," he said.
The WFP focus is always on the poor and the vulnerable who live away from such systems and are completely dependent on rain fed agriculture, according to Ward.
"We need to look at the issue in more depth," he admitted. "At this point we consider it a very serious issue. Given that, we have decided that there is a need to conduct a full food supply assessment mission through the WFP and the FAO. The Ministry of Agriculture has now officially requested us to conduct it."
A clearer picture of the situation is expected to emerge as a result of that assessment. "The mission will look at the level of harvests that come in, the amount of food Yemen imports and consumption levels," Ward said. "They will then make recommendations."
The assessment is expected to be carried out next month.