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Notes on the Geography of Yemen: Hadramaut Irrigation

The Wadi Hadramaut, perhaps the biggest and certainly the most famous valley in all of Arabia, was irrigated a century ago with a combination of weirs and shallow wells operated by slaves. During the 1920s the system decayed, chiefly because the men of the Hadramaut migrated to the Far East--primarily the Dutch East Indies and Singapore. They sent money home, and the women gradually began cooking imported rice instead of the traditional, more labor intensive local wheat. Rice imports ended abruptly during World II. Yemen at the time was British, and the RAF responded by flying in emergency food supplies. Still, 10,000 people died of starvation, according to Hugh Boustead, who arrived as governor at the war's end. What to do?

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Yemen: Hadramaut Irrigation picture 1

Getting to Hadramaut isn't the journey it once was. The plane in this case was full, mostly with European tourists.

Yemen: Hadramaut Irrigation picture 2

The roads would astonish visitors from the British era.

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We've climbed up to the top of a building in Shibam to overlook the countryside, where gardens have been enclosed with earth walls.

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Water's coming from somewhere.

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Finding the source is difficult from these photos, but easy on the ground. Know why?

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Sure: you just head to the noise, the engines driving hundreds of tube wells.

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In The Wind of Morning (1971), Boustead writes, "We introduced the first hundred odd pumps and unfortunately they were unsuitable for so dusty a climate, and the frames were very light, so they were sensitive to ill treatment or lack of skill. We got in engineers, some good and some bad. Eventually a German engineer called Kaltenbach saved the day. We set up a huge pump spares organization and used a tougher type of engine, and gradually confidence was restored." By 1950, he continues, "the pumps increased in the Wadi by roughly a hundred to a hundred and thirty engines a year, and there were nearly 1,200 when I left nine years later."

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Boustead doesn't say what kind of pump worked, but nowadays the pumps are Japanese.

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They're also dirty and make an awful racket. Who pays for them? Good question. Boustead writes that it "required from me great persuasion to get the Qu'aiti State to put up £180,000 from their reserves to capitalize the pump scheme and building of the dams."

Yemen: Hadramaut Irrigation picture 10

So agriculture was restored. Some things remained constant over the century, including the unique hat worn by the village women. Fifty years ago, you could photograph them up close--Freya Stark did and published the results in Seen in the Hadhramaut (1939). Nowadays, cameras are a no-no, whether from rising conservatism or irritation at so many strangers with cameras--or both.

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