Clambering up mountains to find water

Tens of thousands of people in Milhan District, Mahwit Governorate, around 100km northwest of the Yemeni capital Sanaa, are facing acute water shortages due to lack of rainfall, according to local officials.

Most of the district's residents depend on rainwater so are vulnerable in the dry season, and many springs have dried up, according to Mohammed al-Nuzail, head of the General Rural Water Authority (GRWA) in the governorate.

Up to 40,000 women and children are obliged to walk - or rather clamber - 10-15km to reach the nearest water sources, said Ali Saeed, a local environmental activist.

"People must climb 1,500-1,800m-high mountains to reach springs… Steep mountains put the lives of women and children at risk; some of them fall," he said, adding that the springs were in such remote places that not even donkeys could reach them.

Thousands of girls were dropping out of school in the district as a result of the water shortage, said Mohammed Abdurrazaq, head of the Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Project at the World Bank office in Sanaa.

According to the government's Central Statistics Bureau, 92 percent of Mahwit's 555,000 people in 2008 lived in rural areas where farming and herding were the main sources of income. Many districts lacked roads.

Photo: Ali Saeed/IRIN
Milhan locals must climb 1,500-1,800m-high mountains to reach springs to get water


"I have two cows," said local farmer Mohammed al-Maghraba, aged 50. "They produce two calves per year which I sell for YR80,000 [US$400]. This money is not enough… How is it possible for me to construct a cistern that costs hundreds of thousands of [Yemeni] riyals?"

But limited help may be on its way for Mahwit: "We will provide rural residents in Mahwit with construction materials [cement, steel and pipes] to build rainwater catchment tanks themselves next year," the World Bank’s Abdurrazaq said.

Only 10 percent of the district’s 90,000 people have underground cisterns for harvesting rainwater, which they can use for up to two months in the dry season, said the head of the district's local council, Mohammed Abdu al-Nusairi, adding: "Some of them agree to share the stored water with relatives, while others refuse.”

An artesian well costs $50,000 to build while average monthly income per household (of about six members) is about $100. There is only one artesian well per 6,000 people in the district, al-Nusairi said. “Over the past three years, we dug five wells but found water in just one."

"We have thought about digging wells in other areas and running pipes to the district, but our limited budget makes this impossible,” said al-Nusairi.

Abdullah Al-Numan, an environment expert at Sanaa University, said decreased rainfall in Yemen over the past seven years may be the result of changing climate in the region. "In many parts of Yemen, including the northwest region, rainfall decreased from 300mm more than 20 years ago to 180mm over the past five years," he said.