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  Book review

Political Ecology and the Role of Water: Environment, Society and Economy in Northern Yemen 

by Gerhard Lichtenthäler, Ashgate Publishing, 2003. Pp. 274. Plates. Maps. Diagrams. Charts. Bibliog. Index. Hb. £55. ISBN 0-7546-09081.

During the past two decades amazing changes have taken place on the far northern plateau of Yemen. Until the 1980s the region was mostly arid grazing land for goats and sheep, and had a sparse population living in the small walled town of Sacdah, and scattered in hundreds of tiny hamlets in the surrounding plains and mountains. Low rainfall meant cultivation was only possible along a few wadis and in small walled gardens where crops could be irrigated from shallow wells or rainfall run-off. Life was hard, and many left to seek a better living in the more productive western mountains and Lower Yemen – especially during droughts.

Since the 1980s this picture has been transformed. The bleak plateau is now adorned with large orchards and farms. Towns and villages have expanded. And the historical out-migration of the poor has abated or even reversed. The people of the fertile western mountain of Jabal Razih, for example, where I did my fieldwork, have a disdainful saying about the Sacdah region: ‘The East (al-mashriq) doesn’t even provide breakfast.’ Yet during the past two decades a growing number of Razihis have moved there in order to make a better living. Even more surprisingly, Razih – a famous qat-growing region which used to export qat to the mashriq (where it could never previously be grown) – now sometimes imports it from there. How has this switch in fortunes come about? This book provides the answers.

The book is based on Lichtenthäler’s Phd thesis for the Geography Department at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. The author did his fieldwork between 1996 and 1999, but first visited the northern region in 1984, and already knew it well from his long association with the Republican Hospital in Sacdah. He also speaks fluent Arabic, and has good relationships with leading figures. He has therefore been able to provide a more complex and satisfyingly contextualized account of the economic and infrastructural changes and their causes and consequences, than a geographer less familiar with the local scene.

Like all highland North Yemen, the Sacdah region is a patchwork of small polities or ‘tribes’ which adhere to the same corpus of ‘tribal law’. Until the 1970s much of the land and water was communally ‘owned’ and managed by tribes or their sub-groups, subject to certain mutually-agreed rules about exploitation rights. One of the most important of these rules was that a downstream group had the right to the seasonal spates which flowed off land communally owned by an upstream group. These factors – communal ownership, and the control over run-off rights exercised by downstream groups – combined to deter or prevent capital investment in agriculture.

Lichtenthäler describes how a landmark legal ruling of 1972 was the first step towards changing this situation. Tribes quarrelled over water rights, and invited an esteemed religious scholar to arbitrate a solution. His revolutionary ruling, which all the tribes accepted, was that a downstream group should have the right, if they wanted, to claim ownership of half the grazing land of an upstream group – meaning half the land over which the water they harvested flowed. This settlement changed tribal law, and opened the way to the parcelling-out of communal lands into individually-owned holdings.

While the 1972 ruling helped enable this radical change in ownership patterns, Lichtenthäler explains, the main impetus was political. The people of the Sacdah region wanted to maintain their precious local autonomy against a government which they distrusted, and whose desire and ability to control the far north was manifestly increasing. The completion of the Sana’a – Sacdah highway in the late l970s had made the region more accessible. The northern border with Saudi Arabia was in contention. Smuggling was rife. And especially during the oil-fuelled consumer boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s, huge volumes of imported goods were evading taxation. Local people therefore feared that the government would find a security or military pretext to appropriate their communally-owned grazing-lands, so – in short – they privatized them. Individual ownership then provided the incentive to invest in, and develop, holdings. Many of the major landowners were hereditary shaykhs of local tribes, so one interesting consequence of these developments was that they bolstered ‘traditional’ leadership.

The dramatic expansion of agricultural activity in the Sacdah region was also facilitated by modern technology, which many landowners – rich from smuggling and other sources – could afford. They drilled deep tube wells, and using powerful pumps extracted water from ever-increasing depths to irrigate their farms and orchards. As elsewhere in Yemen, this severely depleted the water table. It also caused a rash of new problems and disputes as people realised that one man’s gain was another’s loss – or was at the expense of whole communities, whose shallower wells dried up. A range of crops were grown, but the government ban on imported fruit in 1984 made citrus and apple production particularly attractive; later, qat became more profitable. Orchards have great prestige value to powerful shaykhs, however, so they often maintained them as show-pieces despite diminishing economic returns.

This book is mainly directed at specialists in water management, and in Yemen’s dire water problems and their possible solutions, and therefore contains much technical data. However, it also includes much to interest a more general reader about tribal groups, local politics and tribal leadership, and on tribal and religious law – including, importantly, those aspects of shari’ah law which pertain to water rights and consumption. It also tells a fascinating story of an extraordinary period in recent Yemeni history. Although this is, in many ways, a sad tale of greed, and the over-exploitation of a precious natural resource, Lichtenthäler sees some hope for the future in the communal ideals of tribal society, in the cultural disposition to discuss and resolve conflicts of interest, and in religious maxims which prioritize the common good. If these can be built upon, he suggests, disaster might be averted.

Shelagh Weir