Rising from the Rubble

November 28, 2012

DSC_0031 Once upon a time, the city of Sana’a was legendary for its beauty, prosperity and cleanliness. In the 9th–10th century, the Yemeni geographer al-Hamdani was supposed to have said: “The least dwelling there has a well or two, a garden and long cesspits separate from each other, empty of ordure, without smell or evil odors, because of the hard concrete and fine pasture land and clean places to walk.” Fast forward to December 2012: Following eight months of conflict, even the UNESCO World Heritage site that is the Old City of Sana’a had become a dump site and a considerable health risk. With social services, including garbage collection, grinding to a halt for months, mountains of waste had made some narrow streets impassable and changed the landscape.

This was the case in all the main cities of Yemen: Taizz, Aden, Marib, as well as Sana’a. Moreover, the economy was on the verge of collapse. With Yemen’s oil and gas pipelines repeatedly sabotaged, fuel shortages became a facet of daily life, and the export earnings dipped. As businesses were forced to close down due to the prevailing insecurity in cities, scores of Yemenis found themselves jobless, a particularly serious threat in a country where those under the age of 25 comprise 75 percent of the population. High unemployment contributes to crime, violence, smuggling, and terrorism; unemployed, vulnerable young men are particularly susceptible to violent extremist tendencies.

It is against this backdrop that USAID’s Community Livelihoods’ Project (CLP) implemented a series of labor intensive rehabilitation activities right after the agreement brokered by the Gulf Cooperating Countries was signed in late November 2011, ending the political stalemate and ushering in the transition period with a snap presidential election. As the fighting stopped, CLP engaged a total of 9,390* young Yemeni men and women to clear up the rubble, repair sidewalks and roads, and plant trees. The labor intensive rehabilitation activities achieved several outcomes: the community benefited from services provided by the youth, while the youth seized the opportunity to work, earning some pocket money, investing in their communities, and raising their self-esteem.

Mahmoud Yaseen, 27, is among the youth beneficiaries of CLP’s labor intensive rehabilitation activity. A graduate of Aden University’s Faculty of Education, Mahmoud was laid off along with his colleagues when poor security forced the closure of the foreign factory at which he used to work. He shared his perspective on the CLP-supported activity: “This kind of work should not be considered shameful or demeaning, and we should not be embarrassed by it. Many youth will benefit from projects like this. In the current situation, the young have a lot of free time with nothing to do.”

Yellow_Man-222x300 As public spaces in major cities were rehabilitated through the CLP-supported activities, the population increasingly took ownership of its communities. In Sana’a’s Old City, youth beneficiaries received training on proper sanitation, water conservation, historical preservation, and stewardship. In celebration of Earth Day, for three days, 150 youth and members of local marginalized community groups were engaged to remove trash from streets and plant approximately 150 trees. On May 5, 2012, U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission, Elizabeth Richard, joined the youth, Republic of Yemen Government (RoYG) representatives, and U.S. Embassy and CLP staff, leading the planting of additional trees and delivering remarks on the importance of environmental protection.

The labor intensive rehabilitation strategy also brought unexpected benefits to local communities in Yemen’s south-western Taizz governorate. In a country where water scarcity has become a critical issue, the cleanups led to the discovery of several natural spring water sources in an area where local residents had been left without a safe water supply. However, following two weeks of cleaning and rubbish removal under CLP’s labor intensive rehabilitation activity in early 2012, the project’s youth participants unearthed a series of dried up canal streams and natural spring water sources. Now, 800 local households in Taizz are enjoying a free and regular supply of uncontaminated drinking water.

The story has to be told: in Yemen, as soon as the fighting stopped in the wake of the Arab Spring, the cleanup of public spaces began, slowly revealing not just echoes of the beauty of an ancient past, but more importantly, symbolically unveiling a landscape of possibilities.

* This figure includes Phases 2 and 3 of the labor intensive rehabilitation activity in the Old City of Sana’a conducted from early August 2012 through mid-September 2012. A total of 1,000 tons of waste have been remove removed from 40 sites this time.

– Dorelyn Jose, Communications Outreach Officer, Community Livelihoods Project

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