Traditional irrigation systems and methods of water harvesting in Yemen

With support from the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Sana’a, Yemen, a documentary study on models of traditional irrigation systems and methods of water harvesting in the Hadramout and Shabwah governorates in Yemen has been translated and reproduced. Man has long struggled with nature to obtain water for drinking and agriculture. Over time, he has developed expertise in harvesting water, and draining surface water for irrigation. Expertise that accumulated over thousands of years is now falling into neglect.

Thus, the objectives of this study are:

  • to describe the ma’aayeen system, in particular in Ghail Ba Wazeer
  • to document the traditional spate irrigation models
  • to document water harvesting methods in the most arid parts of the area
  • to document the current status of these systems and the effects of modern techniques upon them
  • to document these systems with photographs and drawings

Yemen_cover_smallWater is the source of life on earth, and man has long sought water out above and below ground. Archeological discoveries have attested to this, such as the remains of surface water conduits in the dry and semi-dry areas of the world, especially in the Middle East, in the Nubian Desert, most countries of North Africa and areas of the Arabian Peninsula including Yemen. In the Yemeni governorates of Shabwa and Hadramout in particular, man has long struggled with nature to obtain water for drinking and agriculture.

Information gathering, field surveys, and office work for this study took less than three months. The result was a scientific description of traditional irrigation and water harvesting methods, supported by photographs and video footage. Since water is the main focus of this study, it contains a review of natural factors that influence drought such as topography, rock structure and climate. The study also describes irrigation water distribution systems based on the stars.


acrobat_icon Traditional irrigation systems and methods of water harvesting



God said, “There was indeed a sign for Sheba in their dwelling-place: Two gardens on the right hand and the left (as who should say): Eat of the provision of your Lord and render thanks to Him. A fair land and an indulgent Lord!” (Sheba, 34:15)

The governorates of Shabwa and Hadramout have long been renowned for their agriculture and irrigation systems. In an arid climate, their people developed irrigation systems to best exploit scarce water resources, leading to green lands and civilized cities.

Today, the neglect of traditional techniques has led to soil erosion, an increase in water salinity, and the spread of drought and desertification. This work therefore aims to lead the way in documenting the traditional systems developed in selected areas of Shabwa and Hadramout as unique and effective systems to manage water and exploit land for agriculture.

Yemen_bridge_smallPrevious research into traditional irrigation and water harvesting systems has rarely addressed all social, economic, geological and geographical aspects of the topic. In general, these studies have not given the natural aspect - geography and geology- sufficient attention.

The first chapter of this work is therefore dedicated to geographical and geological data including rainfall, natural groundwater recharge, and water usage across the varied topography of the area.

In its second chapter, the study focuses on the traditional irrigation techniques that depend on different sources of water, for example spring water or floodwater, and on local topography. The first part of this chapter in particular focuses on the prevalent model of irrigation in the area of Ghail Bawazeer called the ma’aayeen system (Arabic plural of ma’yaan), where channels above and below the ground extend for kilometers from the water source to reclaim expansive areas of agricultural land. These systems are comparable to the qanat systems found in other parts of the world.

We have reviewed the customs of irrigation water distribution, according to the different systems of land ownership in the district, such as the private property systems of ajeez and fakhd. We point to the howam (Arabic plural of houma), or karst pools, as being important water sources, and to the khuwa’ (Arabic plural of khu’a), or cracks in the earth, as important in directing rainfall toward groundwater reserves. We explain the method of digging irrigation water channels through solid rock by hand, according to customs that cover both digging and maintenance of irrigation water conduits.

The second part of this chapter discusses the methods, structures and customs of spate irrigation. Because these are often similar from one area to another, the study will mainly focus on two models:

  • The traditional flood irrigation system in the Baihan valley in Shabwa;
  • The traditional flood irrigation system in the Do'an valley in Hadramout.

Through these examples, we review the system of the sawaqi (Arabic plural of saaqiyya), or irrigation water conduits, from how floodwater is directed into them, to how it is distributed to the fields and the surplus then drained off.

In the third chapter, we document water harvesting systems in areas of severe drought, especially on the Hadramout Plateau from the high valley of Jardan and Arma in Shabwa to Mahra, in an area locally called the Sitan, where different life and development-sustaining methods of water harvesting have been developed. These include the naqab (Arabic plural of naqba), karfaan (Arabic plural of kareef), dams, and the jawaabi

(Arabic plural of jaabiyya). The shurooj (arabic plural of sharj), or plots of land directly irrigated by rain water, are also discussed in this chapter.
In the fourth and last chapter, the study reviews some environmental aspects of traditional irrigation and water harvesting. It suggests recommendations to protect these systems as well as to study and develop them.

This documentation also includes drawings, photographs and parts of interviews with local experts, all to make a few steps towards maintaining these unique traditions, a wealth of knowledge inherited through generations from those who established the consecutive civilizations of Arabia Felix.

Yemen_inlet_smallWater is the source of life on earth. The issue of looking for water sources and forms of its availability (surface and ground) received mankind's attention long time ago across the history of first civilizations. There have been many wonderful archeological witnesses which indicate the efforts of man for making water available for different life purposes. The best example we can mention here is the effects of surface water conduits in dry and semidry areas to which many areas are belonging in the world, especially in the Middle East. We shall mention, for example, Al Nubah desert, most of North Africa countries and areas of Arab Island, of which Yemen. The areas of field and documentary study (in Shabwah and Hadramout in Yemen Republic), belong to these areas which had human activity, embodying the conflict of man with nature in order to receive water for drinking, pasture and agriculture...etc. Many expertise, traditions, and standing systems have developed over time till this date. Such traditions and systems should be studied and maintained by this generation, especially as they are accumulated expertise across thousands of years which are threatened in our time by the factors of neglect and economic change. From here, the objectives of this documentary study which pays attention to the following themes come up as follows:

  • Paying special attention to studying water transferring system that is known for "Al Ma’ayen’ in the area of Ghail Ba Wazeer.
  • To identify and determine the use and spread of traditional systems of irrigation by flood.
  • To identify the methods and techniques of making water available for different purposes in driest areas (water harvesting).
  • To identify the status quo of these systems and how they are affected by the use of techniques and modern methods, either negatively or positively.
  • Scientific documentation by drawings, photographs and video footage of these systems.

This study has been carried out in a period not exceeding three months for information collection and field surveys and office works. It has ended by making this report and contains descriptions of irrigation systems and methods of water harvesting and supports them with drawings and  photographs. Since water is the first aim, the study includes reviewing of natural factors which influence the cycle of draught in nature like topography, structural factors, rocky structure, climate. The study contains models of some customs and methods prevailing in dividing water which has been depending on accurate astrological calculations.