Sanitation services limited, sewage treatment plants poor

Sanitation services in Yemen are limited. Almost all villages in rural areas, where 75 percent of Yemen's 21 million people live, still use traditional means: Sewage is either dumped in watercourses or piped onto open ground.

According to the UN Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Report 2007-8, 43 percent of the population used improved sanitation, implying connection to a public sewer, connection to a septic tank system, pour-flush latrines, simple pit latrines or ventilated improved pit latrines.

The UNDP figures indicate an improvement over recent years: The official 2004 population census showed that only 15.9 percent of Yemeni households had access to a sanitary network (implying piped sewage only). Of the houses not connected to sanitation networks, 26.8 percent had covered holes for gathering excreta, 16.6 percent had uncovered holes, and 37.1 percent had nothing.

Officials at the Ministry of Water and Environment said the government was striving to improve sanitation services, but lacked funds.

Saleh al-Hakimi, a senior adviser with the German Society for Technical Cooperation (GTZ) office in Yemen, said Yemen was unlikely to achieve the water and sanitation Millennium Development Goal (MDG - halving the proportion of people without access to safe water and sanitation by 2015) unless significant further efforts were made. “The government of Yemen is making efforts to provide sanitation services but these efforts are not sufficient," he said, adding that the lack of adequate sewage treatment plants was leading to groundwater contamination.

The UN has also said Yemen is not on track to meet the sanitation MDG.

Rural areas

International Year of Sanitation 2008

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In September 2000, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the eight Millennium Development Goals that challenged the global community to reduce poverty and increase the health and well-being of all peoples. In September 2002, the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg reaffirmed these goals and added access to basic sanitation as a centerpiece of the poverty eradication commitments. The target to halve the proportion of people without access to basic sanitation by 2105 was defined in the Johannesburg Plan of Action (JPOI).

Despite significant efforts by governments, progress on sanitation targets has been slow and uneven. Recognising the impact of sanitation on public health, poverty reduction, economic and social development, and the environment, the General Assembly decided to declare 2008 the International Year of Sanitation (GA resolution 61/192 of 20 December 2006). The General Assembly encouraged member States as well as the United Nations system, to take advantage of the International Year to increase awareness of the importance of sanitation to promote action at all levels.

Ahmed al-Soufi, an information officer at the National Water and Sanitation Foundation (NWSF), a government body under the Ministry of Water and Environment, told IRIN that in rural areas, human waste was often collected in open places near people's homes.

"Special tanks then carry the human waste to unpopulated areas," he said, adding that the lack of sanitation services led to health problems like diarrhoeal diseases. He said these areas had no sewage treatment plants.

Mohammed Ibrahim al-Hamdi, deputy minister of water and environment, told IRIN that in rural areas sanitation services were also difficult to set up due to varied geographical and geological conditions.

"People in rural areas do not use as much water as in urban areas. It is difficult to set up sanitation services in mountainous areas. Most villages consist of a few houses and it is difficult to establish sewage treatment facilities in each village," he explained.

Sewage treatment plants ineffective

Salem Mohammed, head of GAPE's Epidemic Surveillance Department, told IRIN that in the 1990s there was bacterial pollution because of waste sewage being dumped outside cities. "But sewage treatment plants solved the problem only to some extent," he said. Their location was often inappropriate as they were close to residential areas.

Ali Abdullah al-Dhabhani, head of the Toxins and Wastes Department at the General Authority for Protecting the Environment (GAPE), told IRIN that hospital and medical laboratory waste is treated at sewage works. This waste contains dangerous chemical substances, bacteria and viruses, he said, adding: "Unfortunately, sometimes farmers use such waste water to irrigate their crops.”

Al-Dhabhani warned that water treated at sewage works, which also often processed medical waste and waste from abattoirs, was not fit for irrigating crops owing to chemical contamination. The lack of water was also a problem as it meant the concentration of toxic chemicals remained high.

“Health risks include cholera, diarrhoeal diseases and typhoid,” GAPE’s Mohammed said, adding that sewage plants were “sub-standard”.

Sewage treatment plants are found only in the big cities, like Sanaa, Aden, Taiz, and al-Hudeidah. According to al-Dhabhani, Sanaa's sewage works was designed in the 1980s and opened in 1999, but never designed to cater for a city of around 2.5 million people.