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Land degradation threatening farmers, says senior official

Ali al-Dhameri heads the  department to combat desertification at the Yemeni Ministry of Agriculture.
Muhammad al-Jabri/IRIN

A senior Agriculture Ministry official has said he is worried about farmers’ future livelihoods as agricultural land was at risk of degradation, but government funds were inadequate to tackle the problem and prevent creeping desertification.

Ali al-Dhameri, head of the Anti-Desertification Unit at the Forests and Desertification Control Department (FDCD) at the ministry, told IRIN that 95 percent of Yemen’s agricultural land was at risk of deterioration, threatening the government’s goal of improving food self-sufficiency. At present, Yemen imports about 75 percent of its food, according to government statistics.

"The future of farmers is at risk. Internal migration from rural areas to cities will increase as their [the farmers’] fields deteriorate," al-Dhameri said. He made the remarks after the publication on 16 September of a study entitled The Agricultural Map in Yemen, by researchers at the Agriculture Ministry. According to the study, about 85 percent of Yemen’s agricultural land is deteriorating due to water shortages, partly caused by the widespread cultivation of qat (a mild narcotic requiring a lot of irrigation), and desertification.

The study said the area of fertile land (only about 13.6 percent of all Yemeni land) was shrinking due to construction work and desertification. Of the fertile land only about 20 percent (1.2-1.6 million hectares) was used for agricultural purposes, including qat cultivation.

Agriculture is the main source of income for the majority of people in Yemen as about 80 percent of the population live in rural areas. Farmers represent 54.1 percent of the country’s workforce, according to the report.

Lack of funding to combat desertification

In 2000 the Ministry of Agriculture approved a national plan to combat desertification but the plan has yet to be implemented for lack of funding, according to al-Dhameri. He said some US$24 million was needed but his department’s budget was six million riyals (about $30,000) a year.

He said his department had been trying to increase the budget to 70 million riyals ($350,000). "This amount could help ease the problem. We would be able to make a lot of field visits and conduct studies on how to improve the situation of agricultural land. But this solution remains partial. At present, we can't cover all areas of Yemen as our resources are limited."

"If no action is taken, the problem will grow as the portion of agricultural land diminishes. There will be a shortage of vegetables and fruit."

Al-Dhameri also said there would be a decrease in grazing areas and, as a result, livestock would be at risk. An additional problem, he said, was soil erosion, with fields on hillsides constantly being eroded by torrential downpours. "Dams are designed and constructed randomly in a way that [adversely] affects agricultural land, instead of improving it. Wells are randomly sunk by farmers, and this depletes the ground water.

According to the report, southern, northern and eastern parts of Yemen, including agricultural land and residential coastal areas, are exposed to accumulations of sand reaching over 100 metres in height.

Al-Dhameri said the problem had got progressively worse over the past four decades. Mismanagement of agricultural land, the expansion of cities, poorly constructed sewage channels, ground water depletion, unpredictable rainfall and other issues related to climate change, were factors that had contributed to the country’s land degradation.

Yemen ratified the UN Convention to Combat Desertification in 1996, but the FDCD's limited resources have not been able to stem desertification.

maj/ar/cb

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