Version classiqueVersion mobile

Savoirs locaux et agriculture durable au Yémen

Frédéric Pelat
Amin Al-Hakimi


‘Arabia Felix’ - traditions as a burden for agricultural development

The impact of ancient and traditional water-rights on the agricultural crisis in Yemen

Stefan Kohler

Texte intégral

After only eight years the right answers to the right questions

1One of the aims of this seminar is improving the situation of the Yemeni agriculture by bringing back into discussion traditional farming knowledge. In explaining to you why I think that traditions going back to the “Arabia Felix” period are also a burden for agricultural development I am something of a spoil-sport, but I hope that this contribution at least helps to make a lively seminar with a fruitful outcome.

2When I was in Yemen in 1992 there was significant discussion about solving the water problem. A UNDP project had just organized a seminar on a new water law. I thought I was just in time to analyse this legal process, as I was working on my graduate degree on sustainable resource use. The new water-law was supposed to be introduced in a few months’ time because everybody saw that there was an urgent need for the right answers to the question of how to avert the water crisis. Three years later, in January 1995, I returned to Yemen. This time I wanted to see how water users dealt with the new water-laws. But the water-laws were still just weeks away from being signed. I received from the High Water Council, then in charge of solving the problem, three propositions to review. But I could see that different ministries, the three most important being the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Oil and Mineral Resources, and the Ministry of Electricity and Water, did not work together well, and the propositions seemed unlikely to be introduced soon. Anyway I stayed some time in Harib and discussed with farmers the new water-laws. During my last stay in spring 1997 a new agency, the NWRA, had been assigned the task of solving the water problem and the agency had developed a new proposition. This time I found that finally the right questions and the right answers were being given to solve the water problem in Yemen. But it now seems that the solution has not been laid on a politically solid ground.

Similar problems all over the world

3Imagine you are traveling and you stay the night in a good hotel. In the morning you go to the dining room to have breakfast. You notice that the buffet already is fairly bare: croissants and butter have already run out. You know that there are many guests who have not yet eaten, so you ask the waiter to replenish the buffet. He declares that the food delivery has failed this morning, and moreover that no food is expected during the next couple of days. What will happen now? You might be polite and take only one piece of bread so that at least for this day there will be food enough for everyone. But five minutes later you notice a peculiar selfish guest filling up his plate and putting a yoghurt in his pocket, probably stocking up for tomorrow. So now you will get up and help yourself to a second piece of bread, because you know that your politeness will only benefit the greedy and improvident guests. Only 15 minutes later there would be nothing left on the buffet.

4What does this example have to do with the agricultural problems in Yemen? It illustrates how a commonly used resource without clear property rights runs short, in this case the breakfast buffet. Our buffet offers a simple example of Garret Hardin’s ‘tragedy of the commons,’ the pasture being overused by many herdsmen because each wants to maximise his individual use. At the global level there is the example of the world-wide fishing industry over-using a commonly owned resource.

5To find a way out of the dilemma, rules are needed to bring an order to the common use. The hotel has to rationalize allocation of the available food among the guests, the number of animals has to be limited on the pasture, every fishing nation has to obey strict quotas. When problems like this appear, something out of balance. Where you have a sustainable use of a resource, the rules have developed simultaneously with the technology and the economy of the resource use. This is what I am going to show in relation to irrigated agriculture in Yemen.

Water over-use in Yemen

6The extent of water over-use in Yemen is immense. Without discussing seasonal and regional details, international studies estimate the water use at 135% of sustainable use. Farmers, industry and domestic users take 3 400 mio cubic meters of water each year, 900 mio cubic meters over the sustainable quantity of 2 500 mio cubic meters. These rather abstract numbers have a very practical consequence: the groundwater table drops as much as nine meters every year. Over-use of water is almost exclusively caused by agriculture, as the primary sector uses over 90% of the water.

7What are the reasons for agriculture’s excessive water consumption? Certainly you can say the dry climate is a factor, because water is indeed the ultimate constrain. But I do not have to mention that the water-table has been stable for centuries, until the late 1960s. Since that time there have been ambitious projects in the irrigated sector despite the discouraging climate. The modern development of Yemeni agriculture can be seen in the fast growth of irrigation all over the country. It is clear that modernization would never have been possible if water still was lifted by camels and oxen. Development grew out of control and it is obvious that economic and institutional reasons are primarily responsible for the deterioration of the situation.

8The most important economic change in the last two decades has been the greater availability of capital. With employment opportunities in the Saudi oil business, farmers had an income as foreign workers and sent their salaries home to their villages. A part of that money was used to modernise irrigation agriculture. And we should not forget that most of the development in Yemeni agriculture was initiated by the private, not the public sector.

9The easy availability of money has also led to other changes besides investments in water-pumps. People started to have other wants, villages grew, and villagers demanded products other than sorghum and wheat. Nothing can demonstrate these changes more clearly than the spread of qāt production all over the country. Qāt production dominates the Yemeni agriculture nowadays. It contributes between 25 and 50 % of the agricultural income, and accounts for about 30 % of the water use.

The failing adaptation of institutional infrastructure to modern technology

10The economic infrastructure would never have had such a strong influence on water overuse if peculiar institutions not had supported it. We can watch how farmers have adapted to the declining water table: they react by drilling new wells or by deepening existing ones. Higher energy inputs create higher water costs, which in turn require the compensation of higher productivity of the soil or greater labor input. In most cases, this also means higher water use. A vicious circle between the sinking water-table and restraint on higher water use has started. From the perspective of the farmer the situation is similar to the customer in the hotel: why should he worsen his own already poor situation by restricting voluntarily his water use, as he knows that his self-restraint would merely benefit other farmers.

11Therefore the problem must be solved on the institutional level. Technological or educational solutions would fail in any case. The technology is modern already, and moreover is part of the problem: technology can therefore not help to solve the problem. Education fails because people are already aware of what is going on. Let us have a look at the institutions. There are many institutional rules for irrigated agriculture. Institutions rule the access and distribution of the water. Hundreds and thousands of traditional rules exist, differing from region to region and determined and modified by local organisations. At the same time there are modern authorities and laws but they are not effectual.

12One of the main questions of this seminar is “how did farmers in ancient times manage the available natural resources while preserving them?” The answer is at a first sight simple: With traditional techniques, overuse of groundwater was just not possible. There were many rules for the use of surface and ground water that protected sustainable use. Let me give you two examples. If you drilled a new well, the traditional rules obliged you to keep a certain distance (500 m in most cases) from a neighboring well. By following that rule, an existing well was protected from others. There were many rules about how dams have to be built, so that the dams do not change the flow of water in the wādī. This was very important for the sustainable use of a whole valley. But these rules, which the farmers know and obey, do not make sense nowadays because a well has a capacity influencing other wells farther than 500 m, and dams are constructed with materials that do not dissolve a few days after a flood.

13Our imaginary breakfast buffet has another similarity with irrigation agriculture: in both cases individuals share a consensus about a limited resource. The farmers notice a change and they feel the danger. Then they react in a very rational manner by trying to maintain their individual yield at the expense of the existing water supply, thus producing a new and an unusual situation about which society does not have any previous experience.

14Groundwater in the Islamic world is a resource the strict ownership of which is considered something strange. It is logical that you cannot own something the extent of which you do not know. Farmers cultivated land for centuries, knowing that water is open property in arrangements that ensured the permanent availability of the essential resource.

Traditional water rights promote overuse

15A similar situation occurs with surface water, although you have modern technology to build solid dams. Farmers rely on the traditional water right “the upper the upper.” In the hydrological situation of short but strong floods, this right is the economically ideal use with small dispersed and annually rebuilt dams. But when an upper builds one huge dam he maximizes the profit for himself, while the group as a whole gets less. After the recent economic and technological change, traditional rights have lost their sense. More than that, the traditional rights even promote the overuse of water.

16Traditional laws together with traditional techniques have managed the available resources well. Traditional laws together with modern techniques lead to overuse. Modern laws are formulated, but they do not work: the power of the state is inadequate to enforce them. Before the late 1990s the state also made two mistakes in formulating the new laws. First, it wanted to centralize control of the water, making one law to rule water use in all regions of Yemen. Second, it aimed at nationalizing water resources, i.e. it wanted to become the legal owner of water. I do not have to remind you that in Yemen the state is not considered to represent the community, this authority instead residing among the tribes. Nationalisation therefore is considered to be appropriation of somebody else’s property.

17The persistence of traditional rights coupled with technological and economical progress led to the current problems. Farmers have to drill their wells deeper and deeper, getting less and less water, the water at the same time getting more and more salty. You cannot ask farmers to heed the needs of future generations or of neighbouring areas. It is clear that farmers will take advantage of the legal deficiency as long as they can.

The qāt sector as key-player

18To achieve long-term improvement, economic development must be steered in the direction of using water-saving technology. What do I mean with this? Economic incentives for water-saving irrigation do not yet exist. On the contrary, the agricultural policy in Yemen motivated the use of a lot of water up to the late 1990s, for example by subsidising diesel fuel, by giving cheap credits for buying water pumps, or by protecting the qāt industry from foreign imports.

19I have to be frank: I do not know a good recipe for translating my findings into action. But I would be happy if some of my ideas help to evaluate agricultural traditions in a more critical way. But let me end with two general findings that can be part of a further discussion. First, the decentralisation of responsibility for water resources is an absolute must. Without local solutions there can never be a sustainable water policy. Central power must give only incentives and set only the general parameters. Second, it seems that the qāt sector holds the key. Qāt makes up between 25% and 50% of water use. When qāt prices drop farmers will not irrigate as much to get a slightly greater yield. And it seems that at least in this field the country is just now making progress.


Geographic Institute, University of Zurich

© Centre français de recherche de la péninsule Arabique, 2003

Conditions d’utilisation :


Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search