Home | TheWaterBlog

TheWaterBlog: If you want to share unique images and observations in this section, or would like to know about syndicating these posts, send an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.!


Starving the Tihama: Impact of War on Spate Irrigation Systems in Yemen

Posted by Adel Zolail and Frank van Steenbergen
May 3, 2017

For reasons no one can explain, a war has been raging in Yemen since 2015. It is clear who the culprits are, and 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 taken an estimated of 10,000 victims. Compare this to the 350 deaths during the struggle in the Arab Spring that preceded the war.

Adding to this number are numerous tragedies – those who suffer, get sick, get hungry, and die from the destruction of vital water infrastructure: drinking water, water treatment, irrigation.

The war in Yemen has destroyed many things dear to human life. Important services have simply disappeared. For instance, an estimated 8.5 million people no longer have access to safe drinking water, which has led to high levels of morbidity. Other war targets have been the facilities to use short-duration flood waters to irrigate land. This practice called ‘spate irrigation’ (www.spate-irrigation.org) is an ancient heritage, passed down the generations for thousands of years in Yemen. It makes use of the seasonal, short-term floods in normally dry rivers to water crops and grazing areas, and to recharge groundwater. An estimated 200,000 ha are covered by such systems in Yemen.

Spate irrigation systems were attacked in the bombing campaigns.  In war, however, such civil structures are not supposed to be targeted.  According to Article 14 of the 1977 Protocol Additional to Geneva Conventions[1], 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 a vital sector for food security for Yemen. More than 70% of Yemen’s people depend on agriculture either directly or indirectly as their economic foothold. Yet this harmless, innocent sector has been brutalized like anything else in Yemen. It is estimated that the war damage to the agricultural sector is already more than 16 billion dollars (http://www.saba.ye/ar/print460417.htm).

The spate irrigation systems in the coastal red sea zone of Yemen – the Tihama – were the food basket of the country. The Tihama produced most grains, livestock, and export fruits in the entire country. But in the current war, buildings and infrastructure of water systems have been hit and the equipment used for cleaning the canals, spare parts and machine stores of Tihama Development Authority have been 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 for many decades, have also been lost.

From this direct damage followed a larger indirect damage. It is the nature of the flood based irrigation systems that they need to be taken care of constantly and intensely. Regular maintenance is required to keep the canals open and make sure they can carry the flood water when it comes. Indirect impacts of the war however have includes the accumulation of sediments in the diversion structures, main and sub-main canals;  as well as growing of harmful trees at the bottom of the canals. As a result, the Wadi Siham spate irrigation system only runs at 50% of its capacity, as confirmed during meetings with farmers and Water User Association members in Wadi Siham.

There has been a descent into poverty: production in the country’s food basket has halved; income severed and food prices gone up; employment opportunities disappeared.

The socio-economic situation in Tihama's wadis is similar. The percentage of land owners is less than 30%. Poverty rate is more than 80% because of the scarcity of resources and the manifold crises in the country.

We interviewed several farmers. Hasan Qadhy is one of the richest farmers in Wadi. He is the head of an agricultural association and a businessman who is well-respected in his society. He has a home in his farm and four wells for irrigation and domestic use. He owns 109 hectares on which he grows mango, tobacco, and fodder. He has discontinued the last two crops as it is too costly to pump groundwater to supplement the irrigation by floods. The war has slashed Hassan’s income, with the unavailability of fuel and spike in prices. He didn’t get broke because he owns a lot of land.

Abdo Ali, another farmer, owns 0.65 hectares where he mainly cultivates fodder. He does not have a well, but has three goats and 15 sheep. His yield is used for food and fodder, but for less than 3 months. He is illiterate but has tried to send his sons to high school. Abdo Ali is shaken badly by the war. It has become more costly to produce fodder, which now few people can afford to buy. Abdo’s income from the farm is not enough, and he needs another source of income – which is simply not there. So he goes broke ever so often now, and has to borrow money or sells animals or household goods to make ends meet.

Worst still is the fate of the many tenants and farm workers – 70% of the agricultural population—facing the worst at the receiving end.  Sharif has a family of six. He was very poor to start with but his options as a farm worker are getting increasingly limited. In the farms of rich farmers, some economic ventures have stopped – such as the cultivation of fodder (not profitable) or tobacco (cannot afford to pump groundwater). It is the family of Sharif where famine is now a real prospect, in an area that used to be Yemen’s breadbasket.

This July, a new flood season will start in Wadi Siham. This used to be a time of anticipation and blessing.  This year however the flood may bring little as the systems are not prepared to deal with them. In fact, they may suffer from the sediment-laden floodwater running across them.

Descent into starvation. One wishes that those forces that had the energy to start a senseless war will have some morals and will to use the same amount of energy to end the conflict. We may also want to trigger Article 14 of the Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions on the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.

 [1] 1977 Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (Protocol II). Note: this protocol has been signed by Saudi Arabia, a main perpetrator of the air campaigns in Yemen.

  • The Wider Road to Inclusive Growth

    The Wider Road to Inclusive Growth Posted by Frank van Steenbergen, Crelis Rammelt, Kebede Manjur and Letty Fajardo VeraMay 01, 2017  Here is a gruesome news item from the Guardian on 31 March 2017. “A Kuwaiti woman filmed her Ethiopian maid surviving a suicide attempt and then posted the incident on social media, al-Seyassah newspaper reported. The 12-second video shows the maid hanging out...

    Read more

  • Resolving the Drought Puzzle in Northern Kenya

    Resolving the Drought Puzzle in Northern KenyaPosted by Elly Arukulem YalukApril 28, 2017Drought haunts pastoral livelihoods in Masol, West Pokot county, Kenya Letter from West Pokot: the silent droughtFor many years the pastoralist Pokot people of Nyangaita, a tiny village in Masol area, have endured serious water and food scarcity situations that have gone unreported. Because of the unforgivin...

    Read more

  • Postcard from Harla: erosion, the full brunt

    Postcard from Harla: erosion, the full bruntPosted by Lakew Desta and Frank van SteenbergenApril 26, 2017Here is Harla in Eastern Ethiopia and here is its ancient ficus tree – a reminder of the vegetation that once was. In the last century the area changed beyond recognition. Its steep hills were in rapid time transformed into farm land – at slopes so steep that erosion was a given. Soil rapid...

    Read more

  • The Maize Trap

    The Maize Trap “Maize is not food - food is maize”Posted by Luwieke Bosma, Theophilus Kioko, and Michaeel NzukiApril 14, 2017Postcard from Ukambani, Kenya and greetings from madam Katuku Kioko, who has been farming maize, beans and coffee for nearly 40 years, and her son.“I have been growing maize, ever since I started the farm since 1977. We used it mainly used for domestic consumption and...

    Read more

  • Watershed improvement: The upstream – downstream question

    Watershed improvement: The upstream – downstream questionFrank van Steenbergen, Tesfa-alem Gebreegziabher Embaye and Eyasu Hagos April 14, 2017If we utilize our water better upstream, what will happen downstream? Will water availability decrease? Is watershed improvement a zero-sum game with the gains upstream deducted from the situation downstream, or is it an overall system improvement? Or if...

    Read more

  • Coastal Bangladesh: Roads to the Rescue?

    Roads to the RescuePosted by Cecilia BorgiaFebruray 8, 2017Coastal Bangladesh is a vast area. It encompasses 19 of the 64 Districts, 133 of the 484 Upazilas (sub-District), represents 32% of the country’s surface and hosts 28% of the national population. With its 1000 pp/km square, it is a very densely populated area. Despite the high risks of flooding, cyclones, and salinity intrusion making th...

    Read more

  • Getting a stronger rural economy

    Getting a stronger rural economyBy Frank van Steenbergen, Edris Hussien, Fredu Nega Tegebu and Letty Fajardo VeraMarch 23, 2017 It is a sign of an economy that is thin on the ground and not diversified – the number and composition of shops in rural Ethiopia or for that matter in many parts of Sub Saharan Africa. Non-farm business is limited in number and is ‘much of the same’.There are only...

    Read more

  • Somaliland: the camelback is broken

    Somaliland: the camelback is brokenBy James Firebrace and Frank van SteenbergenMarch 16, 2017  Famished camels cross barren landscape near Ballanbaal, late Nov 2016In an area dependent on thin and fragile rainfall disaster has arrived: drought, massive loss of livestock, just a straw away from famine. In the canon of the United Nations arid Somaliland officially does not exist. It is a self-decl...

    Read more

  • Life Skills – the missing foundation to improving socio-economic growth

    Life Skills – the missing foundation to improving socio-economic growthPosted by Otto HoffmanFebruary 15, 2017Image courtesy Wikimedia“Harvest to Poverty”The agricultural sector in many developing countries is facing innumerable challenges, thus requiring effective and vibrant extension services to improve agricultural productivity. Their economies depend on agriculture and employing a high ...

    Read more

  • A picture is worth a thousand words (although smell describes a thousand words, too)

    A picture is worth a thousand words (although smell describes a thousand words, too)Posted by Otto HoffmanFebruary 10, 2017The Bagmati River, which flows through the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal is regarded as a lifeline and as a source of Nepalese civilization and urbanization. The river flows through one of the holiest places in the country. Innumerable people from across South Asia, especially Ind...

    Read more