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Water & Sanitation Crisis Escalates as Yemenis Mark World Water Day

A water point near a water tank providing clean water to school children in Demnat Khadeer district of Taiz governorate. Credit: Fayad Al-Derwish/Oxfam – 2022

IBB Governorate, Yemen, Mar 22 2022 (IPS) - As Yemen enters its 8th year of an escalating conflict, 21.7 million of my fellow Yemenis are forced to rely on humanitarian assistance to survive. The conflict has left a trail of devastation in its wake – the country is in economic freefall, and families face intensified violence, hunger, and disease.

As we also mark another World Water Day on March 22, within Women’s History Month, it is a time to reflect on the immense water and sanitation crisis that continues to take countless lives – and how it impacts women and girls so acutely. The destruction of the country’s health and water infrastructure has left Yemen acutely vulnerable to multiple epidemics including malaria, diphtheria, dengue, cholera, and COVID-19.

Due to the conflict, as well as a long history of under-development, Yemen was already the poorest country in the region long before the conflict broke out. Yemen suffers from an acute shortage of functioning irrigation systems, water points, and sanitation facilities.

This leaves the Yemeni people at risk of life-threatening diseases like cholera and typhoid and limitations regarding hygiene against COVID-19. In late 2021, Yemen experienced a third wave of COVID-19 infections.

As of August 2021, officially confirmed cases of Covid-19 had reached 8,265, with 3,252 associated deaths according to the World Health Organization, but the true numbers are likely much higher with the country having the poorest testing capacity and reduced influx to medical facilities due to economic barriers.

Improved water, sanitation, and hygiene services— like reliable access to clean water and access to functioning latrines in particular—isn’t simply a matter of convenience. It’s central to survival, especially for those already most vulnerable.

Women and girls often walk distances on foot, being responsible for fetching water using a rope to raise water from an open well. In some remote areas, some households still don’t have latrines and so follow cultural norms that force many women, who have no choice but to relieve themselves in the evening, while no one is watching.

All of these actions put women and girls in great danger of being attacked by predatory men or animals. Less than 10% of displaced people (80% of whom are children and women) have access to safe latrines. Additionally, waiting until nightfall to defecate increases the possibility of making themselves sick.

Credit: Wael Al-Gadi/Oxfam

This lack of water and sanitation infrastructure also impacts girls’ health and education. When there is no infrastructure at schools that allows girls to study with comfort and also maintain their personal hygiene, particularly during their menstrual cycle, many girls leave school at puberty.

Girls’ inability to manage their menstrual hygiene in schools results in school absenteeism, taboos, and stigmas attached to menstruation leads to an overall culture of silence around the topic, resulting in limited information on menstrual hygiene. Such misinformation can have severe impact on girls’ health.

One promising sign of change I’ve noticed is that society has begun to accept that menstruation is a very natural thing, thanks to the continuous work of organizations promoting awareness of the importance of this issue.

To response to the water, and sanitation, and hygiene crisis, aid organizations have launched services that play an essential role in saving lives and promoting gender equality. Unfortunately, these crucial efforts are severely underfunded – as seen at the disappointing pledging conference last week, where allocated funds for Yemen have sharply dropped again.

Accessing some of the hardest-to-reach areas in the country, Oxfam provides vulnerable communities with safe water, prioritizing schools and camps for displaced people. We also build latrines—both communal and in family homes—and make sure that local populations are given the skills they need to earn an income, amplifying the benefits of the intervention long after the organization departs from the area.

During the construction of the public sewage network constructed by Oxfam, with a total length of 2.4km. Credit: Mohammed Ghazi/Oxfam – 2021

Our work in water infrastructure extends beyond simple projects. Indiscriminate drilling of wells and the unrestricted use of groundwater during earlier periods of extended drought have left some rural areas with no safe sources of water and so forcing planners to consider new solutions.

In parts of Ibb Governorate, where rainfall is one of the heaviest in the country, we found that capturing, or “harvesting” rainwater is a viable option. We have built four harvesting tanks and a massive pumping solar system to more than five locations in both Taiz and Ibb Governorates.

We formatted around 12 water user committees and provided them with all they need to manage the water solar system properly, as well as including several women in these committees.

To improve the sanitation situation in the IDP camps in parts of Taiz governorate, we have constructed and rehabilitated more than 250 latrines that have been connected to the main sewage system project Oxfam constructed in Al-Howban City, Taiz Governorate, benefiting near to 13,000 individuals including displaced and hosts communities.

In the face of these many challenges, I’m proud of the role I’m able to play within Oxfam as WASH Team Leader, tackling what I can. After a challenging start in life – having faced autism, I feel like I truly beat the odds, and I feel fortunate I can now earn a living through helping others.

In my role, I manage all aspects of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) interventions from assessments, analysis, design, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation in Taiz and Ibb governorates, in the South and North of the country.

Oxfam has been present in Yemen since 1983 and continued to work on development projects, empowering women and the vulnerable until the of conflict escalated early 2015. Now, Oxfam works across Yemen to provide clean water, sanitation and hygiene.

We provide affected communities with cash assistance, and help people earn a living. We also work to ensure that civilians are well protected, and work with civil society organizations to ensure that the voices of women and youth are heard and engaged including in the peace processes.

With the arrival of the Coronavirus in 2019, Oxfam refocused its work in Yemen to respond. Across Yemen, we have trained community health volunteers to spread the word about coronavirus and the importance of hygiene and hand washing.

The opportunity to save lives and provide relief to so many, brings hope and purpose to a wide range of people—including humanitarian workers like myself. Such work brings great meaning to our lives for those of us who are involved in delivering, managing, and distributing assistance.

But as Yemenis leading this response, we need to see progress. I hope to mark future World Water Days and Women’s History Months with more progress towards more peaceful, stable, and healthy futures for all Yemenis.

Fayad Al-Derwish is Team Leader Water and Sanitation Hygiene (WASH) for Oxfam in Yemen.

IPS UN Bureau


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