Saturday 11 April 2015

Water in Yemen then and Now

Yemeni Children's Desperate Quest for Clean Water
Water shortage threatens more than fifteen million people in Yemen, many of them young children, with death by famine and disease. Drought is not the right word: there is actually enough water—more is supplied by nature than in some nearby countries—but it has been hopelessly mismanaged. The water table drops further every day. Few can afford the diesel required to operate the pumps; a disgraceful proportion of the available H2O is used to irrigate crops of qat, the leaves of which, when chewed, offer adult men addictive mood-enhancement.

It is staggering that any population in that oil-rich part of the world can run out of diesel. Can’t the Yemenis’ neighbours in Saudi or Oman spare a few barrels? The (Sunni) Saudis have instead been bombing Yemen in the hopes of wiping out the rebel (Shia) Houthis, while failing, despite pledges, to support international humanitarian efforts to help civilians. The thirsty millions without clean water are, in consequence, terribly vulnerable to disease.

Beyonce costumed as Queen of Sheba
Archaeology reveals that the South Arabians, or Sabaeans,  had effective irrigation systems from as early as 1500 BC. The fecund, prosperous homeland of the Queen of Sheba, a civilisation with advanced literacy and enigmatic sculptures, the Sabaean realm, was known to the Greeks as Arabia Eudaimon and the Romans as Arabia Felix (‘Happy’ or ‘Blessed’); it is the ‘fortunate city’ beside the Indian Ocean, offering exotic opportunities, mentioned in Aristophanes’ comedy about utopias, his Birds of 414 BC.

The ancient alphabet of south Arabia
Complex Sabaean irrigation systems indicate proper human humility and respect towards nature. The mental and physical labour involved in maintaining them always posed problems to would-be invaders of Arabia Felix. Augustus, attracted by its famous wealth, tried to ‘subdue’ it in 26 BC, but the geographer Strabo reports that his general Aelius Gallus lost many soldiers to local diseases ‘caused by the water’.  The Romans had to carry water supplies on camels on long marches. They abandoned sieges on the brink of victory because the water ran out. The entire army died, but only seven of them in combat. It was a humiliating defeat.
Ancient Art of Arabia Felix

The Roman poet Horace wrote his cryptic Ode 1.29 about Iccius, a philosophical friend who had joined Gallus on the doomed imperial quest for south Arabian booty:  ‘Why are you so greedy for the Arabs’ rich treasures? The tough life of the army? Sheba’s kings aren’t even conquered yet.’

The Well-Watered Natural Environment of North Yemen
The difference today is that the people who are about to die from lack of water are not the invaders but the residents. They have been utterly betrayed. Taking ancient archaeology and history more seriously might just have helped prevent this entirely avoidable catastrophe. Arabia is Infelix now.

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