People from village “Al-Shatt” in the district of Mocha, west of Taiz, had to celebrate Eid Al-Adha at Mocha Hospital, while others were sent to MSF (Doctors Without Borders) Hospital or the Saudi Field Hospital.
The incident happened when the two villages were in desperate need of freshwater, with just one very old well as a source. This rudimentary well has a diameter of about three meters and is open to the surface, where water is gathered using a plastic bucket, as is the case in most rural areas in Yemen.
The first day of Eid was marked by bouts of colic and diarrhea, which manifested in a collective scenario reminiscent of food poisoning.
“We had no idea what happened; suddenly, people began to fall one by one, suffering from fainting, diarrhea, and severe colic with high body temperatures; we requested emergency health assistance from a nearby health care unit, where emergency nutrients were distributed for critical cases, but we had to distribute them to several health facilities due to the constant increase in the number of patients”, Youssef Al-Masawa, a resident of Al-Shatt village explained. “Every house in the village has been hit by the calamity,” he said.
Although there were no deaths as a result of the poisoning, some people experienced severe symptoms on this day. Qayed Salim, who was in his sixties at the time, was an example of this.
“My uncle Qayed endured terrible health difficulties in Mocha hospital, and we had to transfer him to Aden and then finally Taiz,” Al-Masawa reported, “but blood clots in his foot led to amputation”.
Medical sources say that Haj Salem was suffering from problems in arteries, which exacerbated his suffering as a result of the lack of fluid caused by vomiting and diarrhea. In addition to his late arrival to the specialist doctor, this led to blood viscosity and blockage of the arteries and amputation of his feet at the end, reported by Dr. Maamoun Al-Mekhlafi.
After examining the patients, the locals confirmed that the poisoning was caused by chemical pollution of their only water source, stated by the Department of Health and Laboratory Analysis.
Climate Change and Migrations
Due to a lack of qualified water resource management and clear laws governing well digging, as well as a lack of community awareness, the open-surfaced hand wells in Mocha continue to be contaminated from time to time.
Things worsened after the March 2015 war, as insecurity and a lack of control exacerbated the crisis of unfair well-digging on farms, on which many rural residents rely as their primary source of income for survival. Because the majority of residents rely on agriculture, their water needs have surged, especially with water-intensive crops like onions, which Mocha is known for cultivating.
Huge amounts of the crops are shipped to Saudi Arabia. Local economic reports indicate that about 300 tons are shipped every day, resulting in a substantial profit for farmers. According to Dr. Jamal Al-Ramsi, professor of geology and advisor for water resources in Taiz, the farmers of Mocha have expanded the cultivation of onions of all kinds, but primitive irrigation methods and the need for water for cultivating onions to maintain the moisture of its soil constitute one of the reasons for draining many wells of Mocha.
When looking at the barren land surrounding his village, farmer Youssef Al-Gharafi, a resident of Gharaf’s province in Mocha, is frustrated, saying, “Most of the land has dried up as a result of the unjust depletion and the land has become infertile and there is no well water for basic use; Farmers have left their lands due to difficulty obtaining water for irrigation.
They intend to travel to other villages.” According to Mocha Water Corporation engineer Abdullah Iskandar, there are periodic migrations of Mocha farmers, mostly Al-Mashalaha farmers migrating to villages in East Yakhtil. Farmers have no other source of income but farming, according to Iskandar. Thus migrations in pursuit of water will continue.
Salinity of Mocha Water
The seven-year war has led to economic deterioration, cuts in salaries of many employees, as well as loss of many jobs, the situation that has made citizens turn to farming in the center Mocha, and over the past seven years, there were many randomly dug wells to cover farming needs.
According to Abdullah Iskandar, the water in Mocha is shallow and requires seventy meters of digging to get fresh water; however, lack of awareness and supervision led to the digging of adjacent wells. Moreover, the continued consumption of water from wells beyond the allowable level of 40 meters caused water to become salty.
According to Iskandar, such irregularity resulted in a restriction on digging in the territory controlled by Mocha Water Corporation prior to the war, but the instability caused by war allowed powerful people to drill wells without licenses, mixing seawater with freshwater five thousand kilometers from the shore.
“Sand is the biggest natural refinery”, says water resources expert Dr. Al-Ramsi”, yet there may be a leakage of salty water into fresh water if the water level drops, leading to lower pressure and, then, seawater merges”.
“Unfortunately, the government lacks plans and strategies even before the war, there should be comprehensive research and know-how of the watersheds, where digging is done, and the amount of safe pumping so that pumping is equivalent to input and thus sustainability is achieved, and we ensure that the well is not drained and degraded”, Al-Ramsi said.
Recently, the local authority in Mocha has been working to dig new wells 15 kilometers away from the province. Still, the freshwater has not reached the population in the area, which is witnessing a large population growth due to displaced people from neighboring areas affected by war, as well as urbanization that has affected the province. The project has not yet been completed, as a result of the huge budget required for delivery of networks, pumps, and so on, Iskandar confirmed.
Persistent Water Shortage in Taiz
There are no water sources in Taiz or Yemen in general except what is stored underground, and the number of tanks within a single city varies according to topographic variability. In Mocha, west of Taiz, which overlooks the Red Sea shore, water is available at close depths, and the four reservoirs consisting of sand, mud, and gravel successions produce the highest production compared to the central volcanic regions of Taiz where groundwater is retained only with lower quantities. Although rains are an average based on the global standard, tank supplies are still low.
The Taiz water crisis began in the 1990s because of urbanization and population increase. To avert such a water scarcity, the Water Corporation dug extra emergency wells at the turn of the millennium, according to engineer Wathiq Al-Aghbari, director of the Water Corporation’s Production Section. He added that a total of 70 wells that supplied the city of Taiz, prior to the 2015 war, only covered 58% of Taiz’s population, putting the city’s per capita supply to 34 liters per day at most.
Taiz was one of Yemen’s most war-affected cities as a local political crisis erupted and the Arab Alliance launched its campaign against the Houthi in March 2015. The severity of the crisis has risen to the point where Taiz city has been divided into conflict sides, where major roads have been blocked, causing destruction of infrastructure and governmental institutions, including the Water Corporation.
Due to conflicts and Houthi armed group control, most of the Water Corporation’s workers were displaced, and pumping from most wells (about 48 wells) was interrupted.
“There are only 22 wells left in Taiz, with a production capacity of 2,000 cubic meters, while the city requires more than 35,000 cubic meters per day,” Wathiq Al-Aghbari said, adding that most of the equipment and machinery were looted during the war. Additionally, the Water Corporation building and most of its reservoirs were transferred into military facilities.
The Fragile Intervention of World Organizations
Most basic services in Taiz, including water supplies, have been stopped for nearly seven years since the war broke out. As a result, many local organizations have expanded their funding sources to include foreign organizations and charitable projects, allocating a portion of the support funds to supply free water through reservoirs located throughout residential areas.
These relief efforts meet only 15% of the water needs in Taiz. Such a problem places an additional strain on vulnerable groups such as women and children who are often responsible for fetching water.
The Houthi armed group’s suffocating siege of the city has made obtaining water from outside the house dangerous, and according to field reports, the number of injury cases and deaths while fetching water has surpassed 80.
The most famous case was that of Rueda, an eight-year-old girl, who lives in one of Taz’s eastern parts of town and whose sacred mission was to bring water to her family every morning, accompanied by her two-year-old brother, who was gathering with the neighborhood’s children in front of the area’s only water tank, carrying plastic containers weighing more than 15 liters.In a scene that reflected the severity of the conflict and the harsh conditions to access water, a bullet from the Houthi group penetrated the head of the eight-year-old girl carrying a plastic vessel filled with water on her shoulders, causing her to fall down in the middle of the street.
Peace is Powered by a Woman and Water is Life
“Every morning I see a child carrying a plastic vessel filled with water that is twice his/her weight, or a woman resting on the side of the street next to her vessel, tired by the long queue to get water under the sun,” says Ola Al-Aghbari, president of Saba Youth Corporation.
A tragedy that accumulates over time, with the citizen paying the price in all aspects of life. “Why did Taiz water financing exceed $15 million over seven years and still fail to provide water in a more respectable manner,” Al-Aghbari wonders.
Since the outbreak of the war, the Taiz Water Corporation’s wells and reservoirs, as well as the Corporation’s own building, have been out of the Corporation’s control, preventing real intervention to repair the water system and deliver water to homes, as was the case before the war.
“The armed groups that have been located in the Corporation and its facilities since the war have prompted me to launch early mediation led and supported by Saba Youth Corporation to remove the forces and begin operating the system,” Al-Aghbari stated.
On the other hand, Shorouk Al-Rifai, an activist and coordinator of the water mediation project, points out that citizens, authorities, and supporters are all caught in a vicious circle of complaints and accusations, and that many others and I seek to find the missing link and create a solution through our community service work rather than standing by.
Despite all the obstacles and difficulties faced by the mediation project team, their efforts were finally successful; they were able to reclaim 6 wells and several reservoirs with the support of certain security officials, as well as the rest of the reservoirs that are under the hands of some formidable forces. Ola and her team insist on finishing what they started despite the instigation shown by some religious people in Taiz arguing that the leadership of mediation is led by a woman.
“There has been no operational expenditure for the Corporation since the war, and after requests from the Corporation to dig new wells to compensate for lost wells under the control of the Houthi armed group and in clash areas, the Kuwaiti Association has agreed to dig six new wells inside the city,” said Wathiq Al-Aghbari, director of the Production Unit.
Following the efforts of the Saba mediation team and the restoration of some wells and reservoirs, as well as the provisioning of new emergency wells, Al-Aghbari anticipated that water would reach 30% of Taiz houses, and he hoped that they would be able to deliver water with dignity to more houses if support continues.
“Overall, enabling Taiz residents’ access to water through the local network would not only be safer and easier for children and women, but it will also be 11% less expensive than relief interventions including the distribution of water in charity water tanks”.
Global Warming Worsens Water Crisis
The UN Panel on Climate Change released its sixth report in early August, detailing the four scenarios of global warming and, regrettably, stating that the world is in a serious situation. If current emissions continue, the planet might warm by 2 degrees Celsius faster than projected, and by 4 degrees by the end of the century.
“The scenarios predict a 40 percent increase in rainfall in our region, but it will be sudden and severe at times, causing catastrophic floods, as well as evaporating surface water and increasing groundwater pressure due to high temperatures,” says Dr. Hajib Al-Hajibi, a Yemeni climate change researcher.
Many countries face a challenge and a threat to their water resources as a result of record temperature rises, but the challenge will be more difficult and dangerous for those countries in conflict, such as Yemen, where, even if humanitarian assistance and interventions increase, it is difficult to achieve sustainable development in an ongoing crisis. If the current situation persists, the current issue could turn into a battle over essential resources such as water.
The research for this article was supported by the Candid Foundation’s journalism grant.