Thursday, December 8, 2011

homemade fertiliser and strawberries

I first met engineer-turned-filmmaker Abdulkhaleq Alwan in 2010. In a country where groundwater is depleting fast, this young engineer, then 27, had made water issues fun for a mostly uneducated public.

As head of the awareness department at the capital's branch of the National Water Resources Authority, he talked to farmers about dwindling water resources, the ills of illegal well drilling, and the benefits of modern irrigation. He had turned himself into a filmmaker, directing spots in which he cast the farmers themselves to spread awareness about good practices in irrigation. He had printed poems by the farmers, and commissioned cartoons.

And then protests and political turmoil hit Yemen. When I wrote to him in May 2011, he and his colleagues hadn't been paid for months. None of the budget for 2011 had been received, and all programs, including colourful public information films, were on hold. Clashes on the road from Sana'a to Marib had meant no diesel for the capital’s water pumps and no water in the network for days. Instead, inhabitants were buying water from private trucks, not unusual in Sana'a, but at much higher prices than before the uprisings.

Now Alwan is studying for a masters in Intergrated Water Resource Management in Germany and Jordan, and hopes to return to Yemen for his thesis next autumn, if the situation permits. I caught up with him on Wednesday at a water utilities conference in Sharm el-Sheikh. At the end of the first day, he was most impressed by Mathias Stief’s talk on making a profit out of treating wastewater in Germany.

In Yemen, like Jordan and Egypt, water utilities are struggling to recover the costs of treating sewage to reuse its water in irrigation, he explained, but in Hamburg, they actually make money out of it! "They sell the sludge. They produce biogas. They sell the heat!" he says, laughing. Yes, a similar system would be possible in Yemen, but only after considerable investment in infrastructure and staff training.

Would it be difficult to convince Yemeni farmers to use the sludge on their fields? Not at all! says Alwan. At the Sana'a treatment plant, barely has sludge been laid out to dry that farmers turn up to buy it. “You can hold an auction!” he says. It's much cheaper than industrial fertiliser, and rich in potassium, phosphates, and nitrogen. Besides, Yemenis are used to sewage-issued fertiliser.

In many villages, including Alwan's outside of the capital Sana'a when he was growing up, each house made its own fertiliser from its small sewage pit. After cooking, ash from the fire would be thrown into it, to prevent bad odours and to start the fertiliser-making process. One or two years later, a mixture that looked like black soil would be extracted from the back of the house and used on the fields, until the end of the 1980s in Alwan's village, and probably until today in remote areas.

Alwan's family used to grow corn, tomatoes and potatoes, but switched to qat and strawberries when water started to become scarce. Wait, strawberries? “It’s a cash crop,” he says. Soon all the other farmers in the area where following suit.

Alwan talks to school children about good water management. Photo courtesy of NWRA


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