Over seven years of conflict, Yemen’s water and sanitation infrastructure has been destroyed. Oxfam’s Fayad Al-Derwish sets out the impact on women and girls – and what he and his team are doing to help rebuild
As Yemen enters its eighth 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.
A critical challenge facing Yemen is the immense water and sanitation crisis that continues to take countless lives. In the month that we mark both World Water Day and Women’s History Month, it is time to reflect on this water crisis – and how it impacts women and girls .
A nation that is vulnerable to disease
Yemen was already the poorest country in the region long before the conflict broke out. Now 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. There is an acute shortage of functioning irrigation systems, water points, and sanitation facilities.
‘Without toilets at schools, girls cannot study in comfort or maintain personal hygiene, particularly during menstruation. As a result, many girls leave school at puberty’
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 poor testing capacity and many of those unable to afford access to healthcare likely to be missing from the statistics.
Reliable access to clean water and access to functioning latrines isn’t simply a matter of convenience, it’s central to survival, especially for those already vulnerable.
The impact on Yemen’s women
A particular concern is the impact lack of access to these basics has on women and girls. They often have to walk to collect water, then use a rope to raise the water from an open well.
Some households still don’t have latrines and social stigma about being seen in public forces many women to wait till night time to relieve themselves, when no one is watching. Waiting until nightfall puts women and girls in danger of being attacked by predatory men or animals. Such waiting to defecate is also uncomfortable and can lead to health problems. Less than 10% of displaced people in Yemen (80% of whom are children and women) have access to safe latrines.
Girls’ struggle to stay in school
This lack of water and sanitation infrastructure also impacts girls’ education. Without toilets at schools, girls cannot study in comfort or maintain personal hygiene, particularly during menstruation. As a result, many girls leave school at puberty.
Girls’ inability to manage menstrual hygiene in schools also results in school absenteeism. Taboos and stigma attached to menstruation have also led to a culture of silence around the topic, resulting in limited information on menstrual hygiene that can severely impact on girls’ health – though recent work to promote awareness of the issues around menstruation is making positive change here.
How can we respond to the water and sanitation crisis?
To respond to the crisis, aid organisations have launched services that play an essential role in saving lives and promoting gender equality. Unfortunately, these crucial efforts remain severely underfunded – as seen at the disappointing international aid pledging conference this month, where allocated funds for Yemen sharply dropped again.
Accessing some of the hardest-to-reach areas, Oxfam provides vulnerable communities with safe water, prioritising schools and camps for displaced people. We also build latrines – both communal and in family homes – and make sure that local populations acquire the skills they need to earn an income, amplifying the benefits of the intervention long after our organisation departs from the area.
Our work in water infrastructure extends beyond simple projects. Indiscriminate drilling of wells and the unrestricted use of groundwater during earlier droughts left some rural areas with no safe sources of water, forcing planners to consider new solutions. Highlights of our work in Yemen include:
- In the Ibb Governorate southern Yemen, which has some of the heaviest rainfall, we found that harvesting rainwater was a viable option. We have built four harvesting tanks and a massive solar-powered pumping system to bring water to more than five locations in the Ibb Governorate and the Taiz Governorate in southern Yemen.
- We established 12 water user committees to support community management of water facilities and provided them with all they need to manage systems properly. Importantly for gender equality, several women sit on these water committees.
- To improve the sanitation situation in the IDP camps in parts of Taiz governorate, we have constructed and rehabilitated more than 250 latrines and connected them to the main sewage system Oxfam constructed in Al-Howban City, benefiting nearly 13,000 people including displaced people and host communities.
Oxfam’s wider work in Yemen
Oxfam has worked in Yemen since 1983 and continued to work on development projects, empowering women and the vulnerable until the conflict escalated early 2015. As well as clean water, sanitation and hygiene, we provide affected communities with cash assistance, and help them earn a living. We also work to ensure that civilians are well protected, and work with civil society organisations to ensure that the voices of women and youth are heard, including in peace processes.
With the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in 2019, Oxfam has refocused its work. Across Yemen, we have trained community health volunteers to spread the word about coronavirus and the importance of hygiene and hand washing.
Pride, hope and purpose
In the face of these many challenges, I’m proud of the role I play in Oxfam as a Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) Team Leader. After a challenging start in life having faced autism, I feel like I truly beat the odds, and I feel fortunate to now earn a living through helping others.
In my role, I manage all aspects of WASH interventions in the south and north of the country, including assessments, analysis, design, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation. Such work brings great meaning to the lives of those of us who are involved in delivering, managing, and distributing assistance.
But, as Yemenis, we need to see much more progress. I hope that I can mark future World Water Days with more progress towards a peaceful, stable, and healthy future for every Yemeni.
Want to find out more? Check out seven stories of Yemeni women here, told through an interactive mix of words and pictures. And read Oxfam’s press release marking seven years of the conflict in Yemen here.
In the UK and want to take action? We want the UK government to play a leadership role in brokering inclusive peace to end this devastating conflict that has cost so many lives. Contact your MP.
A version of this article first appeared on the Inter Press Service here.