Yemen’s agriculture under siege

Summary: more than ten years of war, climate change and agricultural practices that benefit wealthy landowners and further impoverish the poor have left the vast majority of the Yemeni population suffering from food insecurity.

We thank our regular contributor Helen Lackner for today’s article. A expert on Yemen, Helen also works as a freelance rural development consultant with a particular interest in water among other environmental issues. Saqi Books has published the paperback edition with new material of her Yemen In Crisis, now subtitled Devastating Conflict, Fragile Hope. It is a seminal study of the war, what lies behind it and what needs to happen for it to end. In July 2022 Routledge published her latest book Yemen: Poverty and Conflict. Helen’s most recent Arab Digest podcast “Yemen in the Gaza war” is available here.

Although about 90% of Yemen’s staples [wheat, rice, tea, sugar] are imported, and agriculture contributes only 20% of its GDP, these facts underestimate the extraordinary importance of agriculture in the daily lives and culture of Yemenis with the country largely self-sufficient in most vegetables, fruit and meat. About 70% of Yemenis live in rural areas and more than half depend on agricultural activities for at least part of their income. Over the decades, as a result of growing population, water scarcity and inappropriate development policies, the majority of rural people have seen the share of agriculture in their household income drop, one of the many reasons why half the population was poor before the war started. Unsurprisingly, poverty has since then increased dramatically and nowadays more than 75% of Yemenis are estimated to be poor and suffering from food insecurity; systemic undernourishment and daily hunger now affect 17.6 million people according to the UN’s Humanitarian appeal for 2024.

Only 3% of the country’s land is suitable for agriculture, including pasture land, and 3% of this already very small area is lost annually to desertification(see Yemen: Poverty and Conflict p 95.) About 60% of cropped land is rain fed, mostly in the western highlands which benefit from monsoon rains and where smallholder grain crops historically received the least technical and financial support from development agencies. These are also the areas with the highest rural population densities; most of them are now under Huthi control.

Sorghum and millet remain important locally grown grain crops. Although some wheat is cultivated locally, most is imported, for a number of reasons:

  • increased demand as the population has trebled since unification in 1990;
  • the introduction of ‘free’ trade enabled importers to undercut local producers while at the same time increasing traders’ profits
  • increased availability of cash from remittances by millions of Yemenis working in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states;
  • imported foods also benefited from rising social status
  • the rise of deep well irrigation facilitated the expansion of higher value cash crops at the expense of rain-fed staple crops.

Women in Yemen wearing a traditional conical straw sunhat called a madhalla working in the fields
Women in Yemen working in the fields wearing a traditional conical straw sunhat called a madhalla [photo credit: Steve McCurry]
Water scarcity is the main constraint on Yemen’s agriculture due to a combination of global warming related changes in rainfall patterns and the unregulated enormous expansion of irrigation. One third of the water used annually in the country is from non-replenishable fossil aquifers, and urban areas suffer serious shortages.  Water availability per capita is down to 65 cubic meters per annum, way below the 500 worldwide scarcity level. Deep well irrigation pumps are operated with diesel, electricity and now solar energy which enable landowners to extract water way beyond sustainability for their high value thirsty cash crops, such as the widely consumed mild stimulant qat, mangoes, grapes, bananas and others. Deep well exploitation deprives smaller landholders the  water from their shallow wells which are drying up.

The outcome of the expansion of irrigation is the enrichment of those who can afford pumping from deep wells and the impoverishment of those who can’t.  As a result, the overall poverty rate has increased and the gap between the minority of wealthy and the majority deepened, causing stress and social division in a society which in previous centuries had been more equal. While the rise in poverty and the deepening gap between rich and poor are not direct causes of the civil war, there is little doubt that increased social differentiation contributes significantly to social tensions leading to conflict.

Global warming hit hard and early, despite Yemen being an insignificant producer of greenhouse gas emissions [0.05% of world emissions] well below its 0.43% of the world’s population. But Yemenis have already experienced its symptoms for decades. Increased frequency and intensity of floods and droughts prevent people from having the time and resources to recover and build up reserves in anticipation of the next crisis. Changed rainfall patterns in timing and intensity make seasonal agricultural planning difficult: people often lose entire crops because of delayed or early rains. Violent downpours destroy terraces, wadi banks and other infrastructure; they prevent water from infiltrating to replenish aquifers in a country which has no permanent rivers and is entirely dependent on managing direct rainfall flows and groundwater, thus worsening the absolute shortage.

Soil deterioration and pollution from petroleum extraction and disposal of solid waste are further reducing crop yields and production. In addition, indirect war-related causes include rising costs of inputs [agrochemicals and phytosanitary products], marketing [price of fuel and longer travel routes avoiding damaged infrastructure] and ‘taxation’ [including payments at the multiplicity of checkpoints].

Directly war related constraints on agriculture include multiple front lines which are no-go areas for civilians. While active military action will end with the war ending, the long-term impact includes the presence of land mines and other unexploded munitions. Land mines are known to be a danger lasting for generations, children being among the main victims. In Yemen, most minefields have not been mapped, exacerbating the danger and difficulty of mine clearance. Moreover, violent rains and floods move mines to new areas, endangering more people. Mined areas remain uncultivable for generations and thus reduce the already small agricultural areas. Children and other herders are wounded, lose limbs or are killed when compelled by economic necessity to work in mined areas, knowingly or otherwise.

Importing staples will have to continue, even once the war is over. However, agriculture will remain a mainstay of Yemen’s economy. Past development strategies failed to improve living conditions for the majority of rural people. New policies must emphasise poverty reduction to bring about a sustainable peace: they should prioritise support for smallholders and rain fed agriculture, including high value water-saving crops. There must be a dramatic reduction in deep well irrigation to ensure the rural and urban population’s basic needs for domestic water. It is time for Yemeni leaders of all stripes to focus on these lasting basic issues for the livelihoods of the majority.

To add insult to injury, hopes that the war (now in its 10th year) might end have been scuppered by the Israeli genocide in Gaza and the Huthi response by attacking regional shipping in the Red Sea. This has put UNSE Grundberg’s ‘road map’ on hold, if not worse. Combined with reduced humanitarian funding and the ongoing economic and financial crises, Yemenis are left with a greater than ever need to rely on their own food production capacity at a time when it is already under great stress, a situation which is unlikely to change in the short term.

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