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Soqotra: a master plan


I. G. Harmond is a civil engineer with over 35 years’ experience in consultancy. He has spent the past 15 years managing a small firm specialising in environmental and water engineering projects in the developing world. The following article is based on his, lecture to the Society on 12 December 2001.


The Soqotra archipelago is situated in the Gulf of Aden, some 400 km from Mukalla, and comprises four islands: Soqotra (125 km by 42 kin), Abd Al Kuri, Samah and Darsa. The latter is uninhabited and Abd Al Kuri and Samah are sparsely populated. The archipelago’s total population is believed to be about 40,000. The highest landfall is on Soqotra, reaching about 1,500 metres above sea level. The islands were administratively part of the Protectorate of South Arabia which attained independence in November 1967 as the People’s Republic of South Yemen. With unification in May 1990, they became part of the Republic of Yemen and are administered by the Governor of Hadhramaut. Local government authority is exercised through Hadibo and Qalansiyah districts.

View of the Haggier mountains from east of Hadibo

The Master Plan

To accommodate and manage future economic and social development on Soqotra, the European Commission, in January 2000, appointed a consortium of international and Yemeni consultants to prepare a Master Plan. Its primary aim was to examine the current economic, social and environmental conditions on the island and determine how its resources could be sustainably exploited for the good of all.

Phase 1 of the Master Plan comprised a series of sectorial studies using existing data and drawing on the experience gained from past and current projects. These included improvements to Hadibo harbour, safety works for the newly constructed airport, and activity in several other development sectors. I. G. Harmond Associates Ltd were concerned with water resources. Priorities were selected in consultation with the European Commission and the Government, which were worked up in detail to form the basis of Phase 2 of the Master Plan. Surprisingly, water resources were not included in the Phase 2 sub-projects which concentrated on institutional support to local authorities, environmental management, zonal regulation, roads, fisheries, tourism, livestock and land-use mapping. The final workshop to present these has been put on hold as a result of international political uncertainties.

An important development initiative running in parallel with the Master Plan is the five year Global Environmental Facility (GEF) project. This was launched in October 1997 and is managed by the UNDP’s Office for Project Services in close consultation with Yemen’s Environmental Protection Council.

Maintaining the delicate balance between economic and social development, and the preservation of the island’s natural vegetation poses serious challenges in the future. Ultimately lack of rainfall and poor agricultural soils may prove Soqotra’s salvation; for these factors will certainly limit internal development such as crops and livestock production, and are likely to inhibit development from external sources such as tourism, light industry etc. The Master Plan took full account of these factors in the formulation of a development strategy.

Water Resources Overview

Along with all other natural resources, the water resources of the Soqotra archipelago are held in trust by Government on behalf of the people. Government has a duty to frame and implement laws which will ensure that people, agriculture and industry all have access to adequate supplies of water for the foreseeable future. But the challenges in meeting this goal are immense. It is a commonly held misconception of many who frame water policy that supply deficits can largely be met by building infrastructure such as dams and pipelines. But the only viable long term solution lies in water conservation, regulation and self-help. Rural water resources strategies, therefore, must focus and support this approach.

As regards agricultural output, there is a widely held belief that Soqotra could become the country’s ‘bread basket’ (Vol.2, First Scientific Symposium on Soqotra Island, Aden, March 1996). This euphoric view could not be further from the truth. Rainfall which runs off to the sea, if dammed or diverted, could be used to irrigate substantial areas. But the engineering works needed to do this safely are considerable, and either uneconomic or unsustainable. And even if water in sufficient quantities could be delivered — at the right place and time — this is only part of the story, as soils, access to markets, and, not least of all, skilled farmers are needed to make irrigated agriculture cost-effective.

Spate diversion schemes, like those engineered and constructed on the mainland, are technically complex, and, again, skilled farmers/water user groups are needed to operate and maintain them. The same would apply on Soqotra.

In addition to water projects for drinking and agricultural use, there are other schemes which will have an impact on any future water development strategy. For example, the airport, when completed, will generate a considerable demand for water, as will any new tourist hotel, port facility, fisheries or commercial enterprise. They will all have to be catered for, either by enlarging existing resources or by identifying and developing new ones. There are pressures on Government to undertake large scale agricultural projects in Soqotra. However, unless markets can be found and a technology employed which takes account of poor soils and little rainfall, these are unlikely to prove economically viable. Nevertheless, this situation could change in the future with the construction of a deep water port which allowed a high value irrigated cash crop, such as citrus or mangoes, to be grown and exported to the Gulf states.

There is little doubt that water has a high priority in the aspirations of the local population. A survey carried out for the Master Plan in 64 areas during November and December 1999 indicated that drinking water and facilities for the distribution of water were major popular concerns; only health ranked above them.

Well-head, Qalansiyah, north-west corner of Soqotra.
Photograph: I G Harmond

Water Resources and the Law

A new water law has been before Cabinet for some time — largely the work of the National Water Resources Authority. This is believed to stress the importance of water for economic, social and cultural development, and to emphasise the need to conserve and value the resource. Cost recovery — a vital ingredient — is thought to be the major ‘sticking point’. The law will deal with licensing, abstraction, conservation and water transfer schemes. There are likely to be subsidiary guidelines on water sharing between agriculture, industry and potable use, asset management, water pricing and cost recovery. No charges are currently levied on the use of water for agriculture or drinking (except for the latter in certain urban centres on the mainland), but, in theory, official permission is required for abstraction and transfer schemes. A new Local Authority Law with a number of water-related clauses was passed in January 2000 but its impact on national water policy remains unclear.

The Department of Electricity and Water is responsible for water and power utilities, while the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources is responsible for broader water issues. Not surprisingly, these departments are understaffed and under-resourced; poor living and working conditions are said to be the primary reasons for their failure to attract qualified staff.

Khawr Mityaf, south-east corner of Soqotra.
Photograph: I G Harmond

Water Resources: Facts and Figures

Weather on Soqotra is dominated by the north east winter monsoon (October to April) and the south west monsoon (May to September). Nobody has a clear idea of what the rainfall for Soqotra might be, and a figure of 170 mm per annum is widely quoted, based on northern coastal plain readings as there are no gauges on the southern side. The level of rainfall in the Haggier mountains (1,000 rising to 1,500 metres) and the western, central and eastern plateaux (100 rising to 1,000 metres) is unclear. It might be as high as 1,000 mm per annum; this is informed speculation, and logic suggests that it would be higher than the commonly cited figure of 170 mm per annum. Nevertheless, a study carried out in Dhofar — which is geographically and climatologically similar to Soqotra — indicated that rainfall actually reduced, the higher one travelled up the catchment.

Exceptional rainfall in late 1999 and early 2000 caused prodigious damage to property and livestock. As could be expected, the impact was greatest in villages situated along the edge of wadis. 1999 is a good indication of how confusing meteorological data can be. The usually rainy months of May to June were, in fact, very dry, and severe drought was experienced across most of the island. Extension officers (32 in number) working with the GEF and constantly moving around the island, compiled a set of animal statistics which showed that some 70% of all livestock perished in the drought. But when one adds the equally catastrophic storms which occurred in November and December into the annual total (about 630 mm of rain fell in 22 days), 1999 was the wettest year on record for a long time.

Soqotra is said to be ‘devoid of major aquifers capable of sustaining substantial development’, and the limestone deposits are believed to provide very little water as the ‘retention line is often short’ and the rock makes excavation difficult. Water quality varies considerably around the island, and clearly the closer the resource is located to the sea, the more likely it is to be saline. Numerous water samples have been taken and analysed over the years and confirm that much of the ground water used on the island is saline. The further inland one travels, the greater the likelihood of finding potable water of reasonable quality.

There is ample evidence of perennial springs providing some communities with potable water, and, more often than not, its quality is good. But water from shallow wells — common along the coast — is more problematic. Some hand-dug wells (2—4 metres deep) strung along the wadis provide inland communities with water, but this is mostly seasonal and for many months of the year the wells are dry. During periods of high rainfall, considerable run-off occurs along the wadis, and there would be ample scope for ground water recharge structures.

On Soqotra the soils are generally poor, as shown by the vegetation which has adapted itself to survive in semi-arid situations with low rainfall. The only exceptions are in wadis along the northern and southern coastal plains, which open out to form relatively fertile alluvial fans. Here date palms are often grown, supported by supplementary irrigation from ground water.

No data could be found on plateaux soils, which only support light grasses and some very special endemic tree species. These soils have little or no agricultural potential and are rapidly grazed off by livestock owned by pastoralists moving from one water point to another. It is debatable whether it was lack of grazing or lack of water which caused the disastrous loss of livestock in 1999, but most probably it was a combination of both. In the Haggier mountains there is little or no soil to speak of, and silts washed down and held in wadi depressions have limited agricultural potential.

The only conclusion to be drawn from examining the soils and observing the forms of agriculture practised on the island is that very little potential exists for large scale development. On the other hand, the natural vegetation of the island is unique, and many plant species — long since extinct in other parts of the world —can only be found there. It has been studied and observed for a long time, with the most consistent work on the plant life and biodiversity of Soqotra carried out by experts from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh, who have acted as consultants for both the UNDP’s GEF and the Master Plan.

There are thirteen major wadi catchments on Soqotra and these were used to determine flood flows. The estimated area, stream length, maximum elevation and slope for all thirteen catchments were used to construct a computer model, which generated flood peak flows on the three main catchments (Wadi Demaleh, Wadi Rahmum and Wadi Diyada) of 37, 42 and 489 cubic metres per second respectively. This was a pilot exercise, and at some later stage a full computer run will be needed to calculate flows for all thirteen catchments.

Potential rain water yields from surface catchments, including kareefs and tanks, were analysed, and these systems can be effectively developed to meet animal and potable demands. But high evaporation and percolation rates from tanks will limit their application, unless a cost-effective covered and/or sealed unit can be designed. Small scale desalination systems were also considered but the cost of these would restrict their use to key demand centres such as hospitals, clinics and hotels.

Possible projects for renewable energy were examined: windmills, ram pumps, solar cells, turbine wheels for generating low voltage electricity and raising water, and low cost water desalination plants that use sunlight to evaporate and condense water vapour. However, most are costly and locally unsustainable. For a hospital or health centre where electricity is needed for keeping drugs, solar systems are possible, but in a rural context would offer few advantages.

Setting and implementing objectives

The Master Plan incorporates a time frame for implementing a set of principal objectives. In the context of water resources these include:

  • Increasing living and health standards by identifying, utilising and conserving resources
  • Sustainable economic growth by providing secure and reliable water supplies;
  • Protection of the island’s unique biodiversity.

To implement these objectives ten water sub-projects were identified:

  • Hydrometeorological database network;
  • Water resources master plan;
  • Wadi basin management plan;
  • Small weir and reticulation system for Wadi Airi;
  • Water harvesting systems for agriculture and kareefs;
  • Small spate irrigation schemes for agricultural production;
  • Wadi canalisation and village flood protection works;
  • Sand storage dams for agriculture and potable water supplies;
  • Spring protection works for potable water supplies;
  • Jetted ground water extraction in wadi beds for potable water supplies.


Water projects are only sustainable where communities are mobilised and a self-help approach is adopted. But implementing such projects through existing district departments will be difficult due to a lack of institutional capacity. Unless these departments are strengthened through training and the provision of additional resources, or by engaging the private sector, the inevitable outcome will be project failure and, worse still, popular disillusion.

Meanwhile, problems are likely to be experienced in reconciling potential water projects with the GEF zoning plan. The latter has been prepared by scientists, and takes little or no account of the need to accommodate a rapidly increasing population (estimated to double within 20 years) and the potential water deficit. Indeed, there is no mention of water resources projects in the nine development activities prescribed in the GEF zoning plan summary.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that on 25 August 2001 the inaugural meeting of ‘The Friends of Soqotra’ was held, attended by thirty two people. This is, essentially, an international gathering of technical experts and enthusiasts ‘committed to balancing scientific investigation with bringing direct benefits to the Soqotri people’. It is a very commendable initiative which should be supported by all those with an interest in the social and environmental future of the Soqotra archipelago.

Dragon's Blood tree (Dracaena cinnibari), Soqotra.
Photograph: I G Harmond

July 2002