My experience in Yemen shows progress is possible on water, sanitation and livelihoods – but all of this could be undone if violence returns

Fayad Al-Derwish Conflict, Fragile contexts, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)

Nine years since the conflict in Yemen began, Oxfam Water and Sanitation Lead Fayad Al-Derwish reflects on positive changes he has seen in his two years in the job, calls for urgent action to meet the needs of displaced people returning to devastated homes, and shares his worries for the future if conflict re-ignites.

Water tank‏ in ‎Saada city (Picture: Tariq Hayan /Oxfam)

Yemen cannot stand another war. Yet the spillover of the conflict in Gaza threatens to trigger the full-blown revival of a conflict that had largely paused after the humanitarian truce in April 2022.

Nine years since the start of hostilities, and as I mark my second anniversary as Water and Sanitation Lead at Oxfam in Yemen, I want to share some of the ways we have seen progress is possible in this difficult environment. But I also want to highlight the need for all local and international parties to de-escalate and resume negotiations for a comprehensive peace process in Yemen. A de-escalation that will be hugely helped by the immediate ceasefire in Gaza that Oxfam has repeatedly been calling for.

Our experience as a team on the ground in Yemen shows that peace, even the fragile peace that has existed since the 2022 truce, can bring progress. Here are three signs of progress we’ve seen in the past two years.

1. Agencies can finally access previous “no-go” areas

In 2023, Oxfam was able to reach dangerous remote border areas in Yemen’s far northern Saada governorate and became the first international organisation to provide clean water and public health services to thousands of host citizens, displaced persons, and returnees. But there is still much more that needs to be done for these disadvantaged, vulnerable and forgotten communities.

As part of Oxfam’s work to build the resilience of war-affected communities, funded by the German Foreign Office (GFFO), we entered areas that had been off-limits to agencies before the signing of the truce. These included Razih, on the Saudi border, which is considered one of the most water-scarce areas as it is a rugged mountainous area with no springs, no surface or deep wells, and with a large population density, especially after the return of many displaced people to their homes as conflict has abated.

In the remote village of Dehwan, we built a giant rain harvesting tank, which can hold around 1,000 cubic meters of water. It has a natural filtration system, feeding channels, and distribution points throughout the village. Local families have labelled this project a “a miracle”, with more than 6,000 citizens currently benefiting from the reservoir. The project comes after Oxfam successfully provided clean water to more than 30,000 citizens in eight other locations across Saada Governorate.

2. Changing the conversation around toilets and sanitation

In the poor and remote areas adjacent to Saudi Arabia there are entire villages that do not have a single toilet. In Al Abdul, a remote part of the Qataber district, Oxfam implemented a life-changing project to improve hygiene practices. This work was not just about building infrastructure but addressing misconceptions about toilets as “unclean” places.

To tackle the cultural challenges and shift social norms around toilets, we used community mobilisation campaigns, awareness sessions, and focus group discussions. Bushra Al-Buhairy, public health promotion officer at Oxfam Saada, says: “It was easier for me to convince women of the importance of the toilet than men. Women suffer the most from lack of a toilet, especially at night, and many women have been exposed to dangers or fear while relieving themselves in the open.”

The work made a difference: two hundred families were convinced to partner with us to build 200 toilets. The partnership involved asking each family to dig a cesspit themselves and we then provided the toilet for it. This has transformed sanitation for an entire community. It wasn’t easy – but we succeeded.

3. Cash for livelihoods, community initiatives and protection

With funding from Belgium DGD, more than a thousand families in the district of Majz have been provided with cash grants so they can start small projects to generate income. In a region where many people host displaced people, this has benefited both host and displaced families.

Yemeni society is humane, kind, and generous, especially in Saada Governorate, where you will you hardly see IDP camps as many locals see it as their duty to host the displaced. One project that caught my eye during my visit to the projects we have supported was a motorcycle maintenance shop established by a displaced citizen and host citizen together.

Oxfam also backed 24 community initiatives in Saada during 2023. These included the construction of schools, water barriers, and paving roads. All of these projects were driven by community committees.

The Belgian government supported the protection of the vulnerable. Notably, this included the opening of a community centre in the district of Majz in the centre of the governorate, which serves tens of thousands of displaced people and is managed and operated by a local partner organisation.  The head of this centre pointed out that Oxfam is the only international organisation that has succeeded in establishing such a centre locally. “The community centre enjoys the trust and acceptance of all segments of society, including the local authority and community leaders,” he said.

We must not forget those returning to destroyed areas

But many challenges remain. One I want to highlight is supporting those who have returned to their home areas after being displaced for many years by conflict.

In 2023, I visited the Ad Dahir District to find some returning residents living harsh and painful lives in the open or in the rubble of destroyed buildings. All local health and educational facilities have been destroyed, and the rate of severe malnutrition is the highest in the province. There are also high numbers of people infected with malaria, diarrhoeal diseases, and hunger.

Mohammed lives with his large family under the rubble of a destroyed health centre. However, they preferred return to displacement. “We are tired of displacement for more than eight years and we must return to our land,” he says.

Yet returnees seem to be almost a forgotten issue among the humanitarian community in Yemen. We must shed light on their lives – and support returnees to rebuild in destroyed areas that are full of mines and explosives.

We also need to act to support refugees. Saada Governorate faces daily waves of Ethiopian migrants who usually settle in border camps in the Al Thabet area of Qataber district, before completing their crossing to Saudi Arabia. If donor support is available, Oxfam plans to carry out work on water, sanitation and protection in these camps.  

My hopes and fears for Yemen

After two years in this job, I cannot express how proud and grateful I am to this organisation. I have learned so much here and feel we have accomplished a lot (see more of my blogs below).

Until just a few weeks ago, Yemen seemed to be moving towards comprehensive peace and economic reform in a difficult and complex peace process. Another war will be disastrous for the political, economic, and humanitarian situation in Yemen. Even now, we face a worsening hunger and food security crisis and the spread of serious diseases such as cholera,  with a number of cholera-related deaths reported across several governorates.

So, we stand at a crossroads: will we see peace here and in the wider Middle East that can help us to build on the slow and difficult progress we have made in Yemen? Or will we be pushed back into conflict again? For the sake of all of Yemen’s people, I hope we can once again find the path to peace.

Author

Fayad Al-Derwish

Fayad Al-Derwish is Team Leader, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), for Oxfam in Yemen

This blog has also been published on the main Oxfam GB website.

Read Oxfam’s statement on Yemen as the country enters its tenth year of war, militarisation and economic crisis.

Find out more in these blogs by Fayad below:

I’m proud to be a Yemeni tackling our water crisis – but we need the world to do much more, especially for women.

Three ways to boost resilience in the face of Yemen’s colliding crises.

How clean water can flow from peace in Yemen.