Environment: Getting dug in to Sheba's terraces

Brian Whitaker describes how Yemen's mountain farmers are learning to control rainwater. Originally published in The Guardian, 24 January 1992

THE construction of the Ma'rib dam was one of the great engineering achievements of the ancient world; its collapse one of the greatest disasters. For more than 1,000 years the dam supplied miles of carefully dug channels, controlled by sluices, watering a vast agricultural area around the capital once ruled by the Queen of Sheba. The bursting of the dam, in the sixth century AD, was accompanied by a tremendous social upheaval, scattering the kingdom's tribes throughout the Arabian peninsula.

All this devastation, the chronicles record, was brought about by a rat dislodging a stone so large that even 50 men could not move it. An unlikely story perhaps, though it neatly symbolises what must at the time have seemed an incomprehensible process of social and economic decline leading to the final catastrophe.

Today in the land of Sheba - modern Yemen - farmers are facing a similar process which could have equally devastating consequences. Yemen's mountains rise above 10,000 feet and, unlike its Arabian neighbours, it attracts some 400-700mm of rain a year, enough to grow crops without irrigation in many places. The rain, though, comes in short, violent bursts and the water, if left uncontrolled, simply runs off the land, washes the soil away, or buries it in mountain rubble.

Over the centuries, Yemenis have developed elaborate networks of terraces which distribute the rainfall evenly and conserve the soil: successful and sustainable systems unparalleled in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. But they are fragile systems where every terrace plays a part: if one breaks down, a domino effect begins, leading to the collapse of an entire system ... much like the story of the rat and the stone.

The breakdown that is happening today is a gradual, almost imperceptible, process. Often the only way to convince outsiders that it is taking place is from photographs taken 20 years or so ago: mountains that were then covered in vegetation are now bare rock; terraces have been swept away into gullies; and fields have turned into beds of shale. Farmers notice it, though. In one downstream village they calculated that land capable of producing crops worth a million riyals (about pounds 20,000) a year had been ruined.

Until recently the plight of these mountain villages received little attention and virtually no outside help. International aid went where investment would produce the quickest returns: to the flat lowlands where access to groundwater for irrigation meant that high value cash crops could be grown. While this made Yemen almost self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables, it benefited only about 10 per cent of the country's farmers, and the resulting over-use of wells in the plains is threatening domestic water supplies for the cities.

Now, however, the mountain farmers are beginning to fight back under a $3 million pilot project initially sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The scheme, based in the Wadi Zabid catchment area, near Yarim, is unusual in many ways. Tony Milroy, a British agricultural engineer who was one of the initiators, explains: 'International aid has to come through central government. By definition, that creates a top-down structure.' He and his Yemeni counterpart, Abd al-Rahman al-Iryani, a livestock specialist who grew up in the project area, argues that the plan would have a better chance if outside funds and expertise could be channelled to the traditional social structure. The UNDP gave it a try.

Mr Milroy, who works for the Arid Lands Initiative, a registered charity, sees this as an important breakthrough. 'For the first time we've persuaded them to do a major piece of funding that seeks to reconcile two approaches to development aid: the Western experts versus balsa wood and binder twine.

"Governments often bring in experts who don't ask the right questions,' he says. 'We are using simple techniques and experts as well, but the experts are coming in to look at the problems the villagers have defined as their priorities.' The first meetings with villagers showed a widespread awareness of the causes of the problems, although they had not discussed them collectively until the outsiders arrived. The trouble began, everyone agreed, on the steep escarpments above the terraces. Gradually all the trees disappeared, cut down for animal fodder and firewood; without shade, the grass under the trees went, too. It was not the fault of anyone in particular: old wood-cutting regulations had broken down, partly because of absentee landowners.

Then the terraces on the highest, steepest slopes (between 40 and 60 degrees) started to go, and weren't considered worth repairing because the strips of cultivable land they supported were also the narrowest: their maintenance had become too work-intensive. It became clear that the economics of mountain farming had changed. Western aid, sent with the best intentions in the form of subsidised grain, had undermined the price of the traditional sorghum crop. Meanwhile the prospect of higher wages in Yemen's cities and the oil-rich Gulf states brought wide-scale depopulation.

Some villagers blamed the improved education facilities, or at least the school curriculum which equips the young for a city life and raises their expectations: those who can, leave the villages; those who can't find that schooling has left them ill-prepared for rural life. By the time of the Gulf crisis in 1990 about 10 per cent of Yemenis were working abroad. More than one million were forced to return home because of the conflict - which could mean the depopulation process may yet be reversed.

Villagers also complained that the system of land tenure - share-cropping - gave them little incentive to repair the less profitable terraces, and that there was a need to negotiate more equitable agreements with landowners.

"The farmers educated us,' Mr Iryani says. 'They know what they want most of the time. What they need is a catalyst.' The central philosophy of the project that emerged was that it must involve the whole community - women and children as well as the men - and work through traditional community structures. To halt the erosion, trees would be planted, terraces restored, and gullies blocked. But whatever equipment was used had to be cheap, simple, and effective.

A typical example is the Rootrainer, a small sheet of moulded plastic which can form a row of plant pots for planting seeds of trees or shrubs; thus trees can easily be started off in homes or school classrooms. And for blocking gullies, large wire-mesh boxes can be filled with rubble.

Mr Milroy said: 'Simple techniques like these are often not backed by major banks and development agencies because they are cheap and do not provide lucrative construction contracts for outside companies.' The difficulty with all pilot schemes is that, when new techniques prove successful, they often take years to spread elsewhere; and in Yemen's case, that may be too late. To tackle this problem, one hi-tech item has been introduced: a video camera. With the support of Mansour al-Ibbi, a Yemeni cameraman, and Tim Francis, an Arabic-speaking British director, the whole project is being carefully documented. An edited version will be shown on Yemen television, and the complete video distributed to villages and agricultural colleges.

The first big test of local support came last month with the beating of a drum: Sheikh Abd al-Hamid was summoning his village to ta'awun ('co-operation'). More than 100 men arrived, the older ones armed with picks, the younger ones in their best Italian-style clothes, hoping to be caught by the camera. Their task was to plant a ravaged escarpment with seeds collected by children from acacia trees around the village.

Almost miraculously, the next day, Wadi Zabid had its heaviest rain for 18 months, and the first in December for 40 years. The old farmers saw it as a good omen. But what pleased Mr Milroy was the fact that by then word of the planting had spread to 10 neighbouring villages which were now clamouring for seeds. 'It's proof that if you mobilise people through the traditional mechanisms, they will tackle the problems themselves,' he said.

Arid Lands Initiative: Machpelah Works, Burnley Road, Hebden Bridge, W Yorks, HX7 8AU (tel: 01422 843807).