Paving Yemen’s treacherous roads: A life-saving path towards economic recovery and social stability

July 8, 2020

“I’m 40 years old, the father of nine children, and have spent a long time living in miserable conditions – with rough roads, poor health services, and scarce drinking water. One of the hardest things I have repeatedly experienced was witnessing pregnant women scrambling to borrow one of the three cars in my village, or having to travel by donkey or on top of caskets to try to get to a doctor in time to deliver their newborns.” – Shafiqah Al-Salahi

A photo showing the poor condition of the roads. | Photo Credit: UNDP Yemen

Bringing New Life into the World atop a Coffin

The rough roads of Dar al-Murair have caused great hardship for the entire village. As a breeding ground for disease and home to flood-induced craters, the roads are often impassable, cause tragic accidents, and have led to a significant loss of lives. For many years, locals had no choice but to transport food and essential items by donkey, their own backs, or – for the lucky few – by motorbike.

Residents have even had to carry family members and pregnant women in need of urgent medical care atop the coffins of the dead, reminiscent of a death march rather than the beginning of a new life. Tragically, many people have died on the journey to the hospital, as navigating even a few kilometers can take hours.

A photo showing the struggling people used to face due to the rugged roads. | Photo Credit: UNDP Yemen

After being embroiled in a 5-year long civil war and now in the clutches of the COVID-19 pandemic, life is even harder in rural Yemen, unpaved roads restrict access to vital services, resources, education, employment opportunities, and food supplies.

Because of interrupted salaries, short growing seasons, and the challenges of travelling to neighboring communities, some residents of Dar al-Murair have been forced to eliminate fruits and vegetables from their diets altogether.

Fortunately, a large portion of the village’s road – its roughest patches – were repaved in this year thanks to the support of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Relief Fund (KSRelief) in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and implemented by the Public Works Project.

Reflecting on the impact of paving the road, Shafiqah Al-Salahi explains: “Every aspect of our lives that required transportation became 70% easier, particularly helping patients get the urgent care they required. As our challenges were eased, we also became less anxious and even started to enjoy our free time without having to worry about what we would do in the event of an emergency.”

Still, the community faces additional challenges, because not all the roadwork has been completed. On some days, it can take up to eight hours of walking by foot to find potable water. 

According to the Ministry of Public Works and Highways, only a quarter of rural households live within 2 kilometers of all-weather paved roads. An alarming 36,000 kilometres of Yemen’s roadways are made from dirt and earth, are poorly designed, and are under-maintained. This has severely limited the growth and development opportunities of the country’s rural communities, which house 63% of its population, not to mention undermined the safety and depleted the savings of residents who must use a large portion of their modest incomes for transportation and mobility.

Improving connective infrastructure has the power to create jobs, increase accessibility to services, and enhance social and economic integration in rural communities. Providing better access is a key strategy to alleviate suffering, reduce poverty, and provide desperately needed employment opportunities for Yemen’s rural population. 

Searching for Water: Muammar’s Story

Forty-five-year-old Muammar Yacoub supports his wife and four children in the village of Al-Qala’a. From as far back as he can remember, the people of his village used to head out before sunrise to navigate the rugged terrain only to reach a small spring, 5 kilometers away.

After fetching water in plastic bottles or jerry cans, they would transport it home by donkey or on the heads of women and children. This process was not only time-consuming but also dangerous, as it involved facing predators and navigating rugged terrain that sometimes resulted in falls and even deaths.

The rugged terrain and water transportation methods that was used before the project. | Photo Credit: UNDP Yemen

Although villagers had the option to receive water deliveries, the cost peaked at 20,000 Yemeni Riyals (equivalent to US $35) and this only supplied enough for 2 weeks. Not surprisingly, some community members were forced to harvest rainwater that was ultimately contaminated due to a lack of proper storage methods and filters.

After drinking polluted water, they suffered from bilharzia, amoeba, diarrhea, and kidney stones. It got to a point where locals were too afraid to do laundry, clean their households, take care of their farms and livestock, or take a bath due to the scarcity of water and the effort it took to collect it.

These miserable conditions are all too common throughout the country. Only one-third of Yemen’s 30 million people are connected to a piped water network, leaving another 18 million in urgent need of safe drinking water and sanitation services for their very survival. Against the stark backdrop of a global pandemic, improved water, sanitation, and hygiene services in communities and health facilities are crucial to ensure high-quality care and to minimize the risk of infections for patients, their families, and health workers.

Yemenis in water-scarce location – dry land. | Photo Credit: UNDP Yemen

The Power of Partnerships

The implementation of a water harvesting tank project – funded by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Relief Fund (KSRelief), in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and implemented by the Public Works Project – has eased the community’s suffering.

A photo that shows the positive impact of the harvesting tank. | Photo Credit: UNDP Yemen

In Muammar’s words: “Since the water harvesting tank was introduced, 50% of people’s suffering has been alleviated. More than 120 households have benefited from the project, and when the tanks are full, they can sustain us for 6 months.”

Now, community members can save their money for other essential items, including education and healthcare. Children can attend schools because they do not have to spend their days searching for water, and women no longer must risk their personal safety navigating rugged terrain.

The project has also had a significant impact on ending the diseases caused by contaminated water, resulting in better living conditions and quality of life throughout the community.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) funding  to the UNDP Yemen Emergency Crisis Response Project (YECRP) has contributed to the ongoing famine response efforts. Thanks to the KSA grant, by the end of May 2020, approximately 6,350 people directly benefited from short-term paid public work employment in 63 sub-projects, covering agricultural land protection, road rehabilitation, and water harvest and supply. Thanks to the generated income, they were able to better meet their basic household needs, such as food, water, medicine, clothing, shelter, education, and transportation. Moreover, over 231,100 community members are benefiting from rehabilitated key infrastructure, such as roads and clean drinking water – which are crucial for the well-being of the communities and serve as a key preventive measure to the spread of cholera and COVID-19.