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The Middle East and North Africa region comprises 14 low and middle-income countries or territories stretching from Iran to Morocco (see Map). The region supports a population of 296 million people, over 120 million of whom live in rural areas. Of these, about 84 million are dependent on agriculture – including fishing and livestock. However, lately, When growing vegetables is no longer safe having been witnessed, the FAO and Japan partnered to fight cholera on Yemen’s farms.


“When I was carried through the hospital doors last June, nobody thought I would live to tell this story,” remembers Adba Saleh Mubarak. “The nurses took one look at me and motioned my daughter to take me away. They thought I was dead,” she recalls. Her daughter, however, insisted that the nurses take a closer look, and thanks to medical treatment, Adba recovered from an acute case of cholera.

Adba Saleh Mubarak is a Yemeni farmer from the Sana’a governorate. She contracted cholera from poorly treated wastewater. The treatment facilities in this area are not sufficient. However, with water so scarce in the region, farmers often have no choice but to use contaminated water. ©FAO

While the disease is endemic in Yemen, the last few years have seen infections spike to a scale not witnessed in living memory. The destruction of water infrastructure due to the conflict, plus aquifer depletion, are largely to blame. With freshwater extremely scarce and sewage disposal systems in disrepair, more and more people are using water of dubious quality.

A still visibly frail Adba suspects she contracted cholera from water from Sana’a’s wastewater treatment plant. The overwhelmed plant is spewing poorly treated wastewater into the canal that runs through the Bani Al Harith District, where Adba lives with her daughter and three grandchildren. Many people here – mainly women and children – use this unsafe water to grow vegetables for their own consumption and to sell in the capital’s markets.

“This area used to be our own little Garden of Eden. We grew all sorts of vegetables,” Adba remembers. She learned the hard way about the risks of bacterial-laden water or food and now avoids contact with it. Yet, even though farmers and families have been warned about the dangers of using water from the canal, the supplies of this precious resource are too hard to come by – and the need for food too great – so these warnings often go ignored.

When growing vegetables is no longer safe
Dysfunctional water treatment plant’s outlet flows through Bani Al-Harith district. Without other choices, farmers often use this water to irrigate their crops, even if it is unsafe. ©FAO
When growing vegetables is no longer safe
Adba cleans vegetables in a bowl using safe, treated water from wastewater treatment plants set up thanks to a FAO-Japan project. ©FAO

Seeing this problem, FAO partnered with Japan to install small-scale wastewater treatment facilities that can produce safe water for irrigation.

The treatment plants use the power of gravity to cycle the water through the various stages of cleaning; this means that the facilities are both cost effective and easy to manage. The rigorous 26-day treatment process involves sedimentation, filtration and aeration that utilizes direct sunlight to kill the microbes and ensure treated water meets the standards required for use in agriculture. At optimum working capacity, each plant can treat 150 cubic meters of wastewater per day.

The vast majority of water in Yemen – as much as 90 percent – goes towards irrigation. To improve water use efficiency, the FAO-Japan project is also rolling out modern drip irrigation systems on an estimated 75 hectares of cultivated land. This system ensures the sustainable and responsible use of treated water for farming.

FAO staff visiting the water treatment plant under construction as part of the “Yemen Cholera Response Mechanism “project in Bani Al-Hareth, Yemen. ©FAO

Through already established Water Users’ Associations, the project is also intensifying public awareness campaigns regarding safe water use in agriculture, food processing and preparation. Farmers are being educated on the perils of untreated wastewater on human and animal health.  The campaigns also focus on the environmental dangers that contaminated water poses to the soil and ecology.

Rania Ahmad Handhal, head of the Women Sector in Ahdaq Water Users’ Association and a participant in the awareness raising effort, says women are particularly at risk. She herself also contracted and recovered from cholera last year. “Getting cholera, however, strengthened my resolve to continue raising awareness among women in our village because they are the ones who farm and use water more extensively than the men,” she says.

Every day Rania tirelessly goes from door to door talking to women about cholera and how to avoid it. “I do my best in trying to save the lives of my people. I am very optimistic and hopeful that with better information and projects such as this one, we can beat cholera and women can earn much more from growing and selling vegetables,” she concludes with a smile.

The FAO-Japan project will save thousands of families living in Sana’a who rely on vegetables from this region. While this project has done a lot to mitigate the spread cholera, it is, however, not enough to cover the irrigation demands of the population. FAO is thus proposing to scale up interventions through a new phase, which will see new plants constructed covering the remaining 320 hectares available.  This will allow farmers to expand their vegetable production while ensuring that untreated water is not used to irrigate vegetables in Bani Al-Hareth.

Water, food, health: the basics that everyone should have. FAO and its Member countries are working toward the Sustainable Development Goals, with this project particularly focusing on Zero Hunger (SDG 2), Good Health (SDG 3) and Clean Water (SDG 6), to ensure that people worldwide have access to these basic human rights.

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