Desertification a threat to millions of Yemenis

News and Press Release
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Published on 1 July 2014 in Health & Environment

Ali Abulohoom (author)

The World Day to Combat Desertification took place on June 17 to bring awareness to one of the greatest global challenges to sustainable development and one that has a devastating impact on the world’s poorest people whose livelihoods are tied to the land. In Yemen, drought and increasing desertification in rural areas has pushed people to relocate to towns and cities. It is also one of the factors that make Sana’a one of the fastest growing capital cities in the world, with a growth rate of seven percent.

Ten years ago, 50-year-old Hamood Al-Sharai migrated to Ibb city from Al-Sofi village in Ibb governorate. He hoped for a new source of income after his land became too arid to use due to drought and overgrazing.

“I used to earn money by selling the crops produced on my land. I also sold cattle that grazed on the land. However I started to lose my cattle when they were dying of starvation,” Al-Sharai said.

Al-Sharai faced multiple difficulties when he decided to leave his small village—the village where he was born and raised.

“I sold my leftover cattle and took my family to Sana’a. I remained jobless for a few months. I tended someone’s garden for a few weeks then left that job as I was not paid well. Right now I have a minibus shuttling passengers from one place to another,” Al-Sharai said.

He chose Sana’a because he believed it would offer more job opportunities than other cities. Farming, however, used to be much more lucrative for Al-Sharai.

“I used to earn more money in comparison to my current career. I earned about YR1,000,000 ($4,655) annually, but now I earn almost YR2,000 ($9.31) a day, making my annual income YR600,000 ($2,793).”

Abdu Madar, the deputy manager of the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation’s Desertification Department, estimates that over 90 percent of land in Yemen is at threat of desertification. He stated that too little has been done to alleviate this problem.

Yemen also faces heavy sandstorms, which cause soil erosion and damage crops. Annually, 20 percent of arable land is destroyed by sandstorms, making life difficult for farmers.

According to Madar, desertification has increased the poverty rate in coastal areas of Yemen. “People seem bent on moving to other places to find alternatives, increasing the overall rate of internal migration,” he said.

Futaini Saeed, a resident of Tehama district in Hodeida governorate, west of Sana’a, moved 30 miles to Hodeida city to work as a fisherman, leaving behind his job as a farmer.

Saeed had been a farmer for 20 years. He used to plant tomatoes and carrots in his 12 hectare plot of land. However, sand storms ruined much of his land, driving him out of Hodeida in search of a new source of income.

“When my land turned into a small desert, I was forced to leave for Hodeida to work at sea as a fisherman, the career my elder brother taught me before,” Saeed said. “My land is better than the sea but I have no choice but to stay here.”

The unregulated drilling of private wells to tap into underground aquifers has contributed to the problem of desertification in water scarce areas. Mohammed Al-Jabri, the director of the Population Study Center in Sana’a, said that the depletion of underground wells in many rural areas has caused arable land to become unusable. People have found themselves jobless and have gradually lost their only means of sustenance.

“The major cities, according to a study released by the center in 2012, including Sana’a, Taiz, Ibb, Hodeida, Aden and Mukalla, have witnessed high levels of internal migration in the past 20 years as people lose their source of income from cultivation and grazing,” he said.

Al-Jabri explained that the migration of people from rural areas to the cities has led to some cities becoming very heavily populated within a short span of time. He says that Sana’a and Taiz have populations of about 2 million and 600,000 respectively, but that “ten years prior… they were half that number. Migration is the main reason for the increase in the population.”

And even in the cities the threat of water shortage is being felt. The once lush communal gardens of Old Sana’a are now parched and unable to support many crops, in part due to the paving of large parts of the city, which prevents water being absorbed into the ground, and because of the massively increasing demand for water. Nowadays, wells need to be drilled ever deeper. By some forecasts, the Sana’a Basin could run out of water within a matter of years as the rate of consumption far outstrips the rate of replenishment.

Yemen is part of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) formed in 1995, which states that a “global partnership will be forged to reverse and prevent desertification/land degradation and to mitigate the effects of drought in affected areas in order to support poverty reduction and environmental sustainability.” However, Yemen has yet to demonstrate real commitment to these goals.

Arid land on the outskirts of Sana’a.

Arid land on the outskirts of Sana’a.

Ali Al-Thmeri, manger of the Desertification Department at the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation, said that Yemen received support from the UN to combat desertification. Trainees were sent abroad to attend workshops and complete courses on how to combat desertification and land degradation.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in a speech that “land degradation, caused or exacerbated by climate change, is not only a danger to livelihoods but also a threat to peace and stability.”

He went on to say, “while land degradation is acutely felt in the world’s arid lands, some 80 percent is actually occurring outside these areas. More than 1.5 billion people subsist on land that is degrading—the majority of whom are small farmers. Climate change directly threatens their productivity. In many regions, freshwater resources are declining, food-growing areas are shifting and crop yields are faltering.”

People’s dependence on qat, the mildly narcotic leaf that is highly popular in Yemen, is contributing to the problem. By some estimates, qat accounts for as much as 40 percent of the water consumed from the Sana’a Basin, although this figure is disputed.

Mohammed Dubaie, an economic analyst at Sana’a University, said qat cultivation contributes to the depletion of wells in many areas. Qat from one parcel of land can be harvested more than four times a year and requires water all year round.

“Four yields a year means land [for cultivating qat] needs hundreds of cubic meters of water—much more than needed by crops that give one or two yields a year. The water depletion inevitably leads to land degradation.”

Although less water intensive cash crops are also suited to Yemen’s environment, qat production is highly lucrative and high demand for the leaf is guaranteed.

Another part of the problem has to do with inefficient use of water. Drip irrigation systems–which are designed to conserve water and are easily accessible–have yet to displace outdated and wasteful techniques such as flood irrigation.

Yemen’s severe environmental problems will likely only worsen as climate change intensifies. Stories like that of Yahya Al-Okam, a 43-year-old from Ibb governorate, will become increasingly common. He and his family moved from the countryside to Sana’a last year, where they are currently living off his savings while he searches for a job. “I had land on which my income depended entirely for 30 years. But two years ago the source of income vanished as the well beside my house ran out of water. My land became arid.”