Why water is such a precious resource in Yemen’s remote villages

Yemen has one of the worst problems of water scarcity anywhere in the world. 16 million people lack access to clean water, either because there is no infrastructure or because they can’t afford water trucks. Oxfam water engineer, John Migele, visited one village where people reminded him of why his work is so important.

Alowbala Village, Amran

Amran governorate just like other parts of Yemen, is endowed with beautiful landscapes with exceedingly scenic views. But visiting a distant rural community hit with suspicious cases of acute diarrhea disease provides a different and humbling scene, hidden to anyone who might simply walk in and out of the community.

Alowbala Village (in Al-Qafla district) is situated more than three hours’ drive through a rocky and mountainous road. The homes are spread out but when visitors arrive, the residents come to share a handshake. People are friendly and hardworking.

Understanding the challenges

We are here to let people know how to help prevent and control of diseases such as cholera. One older man opens up the discussion to talk about the harsh living conditions in the community and hidden struggles they cope with every day to get water and other basic needs. He cites deep poverty, lack of schools in the village and associated high illiteracy levels, occasional internal conflicts (due to differences over land and the few water sources).

There is no health unit within the village - and the nearest one is 25 kilometers away. The man continues, “We do not have latrines in many of the homes you see, everywhere is rocky and it’s very difficult to have latrines in the mountain.”

We learn that there is very little awareness of the benefits of the latrines and that the community practices open defecation. A younger man narrates his frustrations, "We have no good water here. When it's dry like now, we have open wells that we dig ourselves in groups to support us and our livestock. The wells are only possible down in the valley and it’s a long journey for many homes back up the mountains.”

 Ameen Al-Ghaberi/Gabreez

Women in Al-Dhafer village in Amran governorate return home with water. Credit: Ameen Al-Ghaberi/Gabreez

The inequality of water access

We notice a water reservoir tank and we enquire how they get the water trucking service. In unison, the villagers confirm that this is for the few rich people in the community who call the truck owners whenever they need water to irrigate their qat farms – qat is a water-intensive crop whose leaves are chewed as a mild narcotic – and for drinking. The rich pay USD $15 for every trip.

Their faces clearly express the feeling that access to clean water is a luxury for the few. One man from the group interjects that people working on the rich families' farms have resorted to begging for clean drinking water.

Lack of water causes serious health problems

In the process, a mother who recently had her family admitted to hospital arrives, along with her six children. As she settles among the female community members, we then lead a discussion session on hand washing with soap as a key practice to prevent/control both acute diarrhea and cholera. One man was shocked to see the dirty water from his own hands, "We just live with dirt in our hands!"

 Riad Alghazali/Oxfam

Community member performs hand-washing demonstration in Amran governorate. Credit: Weam Moghales/Oxfam

In the women’s group, another mother of six explains what she thought caused her and her children to fall sick and be admitted in the hospital, "I went to the valley in the morning to collect water from the open water source for my children, and after three hours at exactly 4pm, after my children drank that water, they came down with acute watery diarrhea and vomiting. First my daughter, then the rest of my family including myself."

Making a deeper connection

As my team and I wrap up to leave, a senior member of the community stands up with a heartfelt plea on behalf of those who are vulnerable but could not attend the sessions, "Please visit us again to tell our neighbors who did not attend today so they too can get this good message. We will not be able to convey this information correctly as you did."

We were touched by the deep rapport we had quickly established with these people. A young teenage boy plucked up the courage to approach our team, curious himself to know how to treat water to be safe for drinking and to stop diseases.

We left with a deeper understanding of the challenges the village residents face but also an admiration of their eagerness to learn new skills that can improve their lives.

The entry posted by John Migele, Public Health Promotion Team Leader in Amran, Oxfam Yemen, on World Water Day, 22 March 2018.

Top photo: Women in Al-Dhafer village in Amran governorate carry jerrycans on their heads and climb the mountain to return to their homes. Credit: Ameen Al-Ghaberi/Gabreez

The UN estimates some 17 million people in Yemen, 60 percent of the population, are suffering from food insecurity and malnutrition, including 8 million now on the brink of famine. At the same time, Yemen is facing the world’s worst ever recorded cholera outbreak, with nearly 1 million cases reported and over 2,200 deaths since the start of the epidemic. Oxfam is delivering essential aid in both the north and south of the country and we have reached 1.5 million people across the frontlines, since July 2015.

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