Yemen fuel crisis takes heavy toll on agriculture

Yemen farming - MAIN
Plowing the fields. Fuel shortage in Yemen has left farmers unable to access irrigation water. Copyright: Tomas Sennett /World Bank

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  • Yemen fuel crisis is leaving many farmers without irrigation water
  • Huge swathes of agricultural land and crops are at risk, experts warn
  • Solar energy is being used by some to power water pumps but costs are high

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[Sana'a] A fuel crisis in Yemen which has forced motorists to queue for days to fill their tanks is also having devastating consequences for agricultural land and crop yields, politicians and experts warn.

Majeed Al-Mutawakel, deputy minister for agriculture and irrigation in the Houthi administration, said that “more than 50 per cent of the agriculture sector in Yemen has been affected” by the latest crisis, which has entered its seventh week in a number of governorates.

The Houthi authority is not recognised as a government by the international community but has assumed control of domestic concerns since an armed takeover by Houthi rebels in 2014.

The crisis was triggered in September when a Saudi Arabia-led alliance battling the rebel Houthi group ordered all imported oil shipments to obtain prior authorisation from the exiled government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

“The shortage in diesel and its soaring prices might lead to the damage of cereal yields that were planted this summer… It also threatens the whole agriculture process in the upcoming winter season,”

Yahia Al-Hadrami, General Organisation for the Production and Development of Cereals

Hadi’s government bans oil traders from dealing with Houthis in return for granting them licences to introduce their shipments to Hodeidah port on the country’s Red Sea coast.

Al-Mutawakel says the fuel shortage is putting around 230,000 hectares of agricultural land at risk, mainly in the northern and western areas of Tehama, Sa’dah, Hajjah, Ebb, Ta’iz, Muhweet and parts of Al-Jawf governorates.

This is not the first fuel crisis seen in Yemen but it has starker consequences for farmers, coming between two agricultural seasons, according to Yahia Al-Hadrami, project coordinator of the General Organisation for the Production and Development of Cereals.

Al-Hadrami told SciDev.Net: “The shortage in diesel and its soaring prices might lead to the damage of cereal yields that were planted this summer and are currently due to harvest. It also threatens the whole agriculture process in the upcoming winter season.”

Al-Hadrami said his organisation had provided assistance to some farmers in ploughing their land but that irrigation remained a major hurdle, with each farmer needing an average of 2,000 litres of water a day.

In many areas, farmers depend on rain water to compensate for water shortages and “unfortunately, this time termination of rains coincided with the fuel crisis”, said Mohsen Ghilan, a Yemeni farmer.

He told SciDev.Net: “On average, farmers who could afford it have paid one million Yemeni rial (US$2,000) each just on irrigation, whereas those who couldn’t afford, couldn’t save their land.”

Ali Abdel-Ghani Al-Makteri, an agricultural researcher in Tehama governorate, says cereal yields in many areas have been destroyed because farmers are unable to secure sufficient irrigation.

Farmers cultivating vegetables and fruits are also struggling to maintain continuous irrigation to save their crops, Al-Makteri added. Most farmers depend on groundwater to grow fruit and vegetables, but the shutdown of many water pumps has led to lasting crop damage, he explained.

According to Ghilan, water shortage in some tomato fields has wiped out yields entirely, with the damage also extending to the roots of plants.

Even crops that survive thirst are still at risk until they reach a central marketplace, says Al-Makteri, as the increase in fuel prices has also hiked up transport costs beyond affordable levels for farmers.

Al-Hadrami points out that successive fuel crises have disrupted the whole of the agricultural process and led thousands of farmers to lose motivation to work, amid continuous losses.

“Can you imagine: farmers spend a lot of money in the phase of sowing and tiling and in the middle of the season a fuel crisis happens and ruins everything?” he said.

The crisis is a further blow to the agriculture sector, which involves almost one third of Yemen’s workforce and was already suffering from the effects of war and political unrest. Hundreds of plots of land have been abandoned because they are close to conflict areas or within reach of direct aerial bombing, according to Al-Makteri.

He said some local organisations have provided farmers with ploughs, seeds and limited quantities of fuel, but: “It is just a temporary solution that would not be sustainable if the crisis persists.”

“We have worked jointly with some organisations to provide solar energy systems to operate water pumps,” he added. “However, their operational capacity is still limited to wells that are not deeper than 150 metres.” It is an expensive solution and not suitable for central and western regions of the country.

The effects of the fuel crisis can be easily seen in local markets where the price of crops has increased and there has been an unprecedented decrease in purchasing power among local people.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s  Middle East & North Africa desk and edited for clarity.