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Wadi Hadhramaut – the Start of a Large New Rehabilitation Project in Yemen

Shibam: UNESCO World Heritage site

I was recently privileged to be part of the team that accompanied Geoff and Nadia Lawton along with Mr. Tashi Dawa in a very interesting consultancy in the Southern Yemen, specifically The Hadhramaut Valley, or Wadi Hadhramaut.

Geoff was invited by the “Reconstruction Fund of Hadhramaut and Al-Mahra” to give his opinion on what could be done in the valley in terms of flood mitigation and water harvesting from a permaculture point of view.


Wadi Hadhramaut, located only 16° North of the equator, and 200kms inland from the nearest ocean, the Indian Ocean. It is considered an Arid Tropical climate zone, with almost no similar climate zones or topography in the world. The Wadi is more than 200kms long and ranges in width between 500m and 13kms at some points. The average annual precipitation in Seiyun (the biggest town in the Wadi) is 65.2mm.

Its wells and controlled flash floods provided much needed water for cultivation and its rich soil yielded 3-4 crops a year where irrigation was successfully managed. Throughout history, this fertile land gave the economic basis for people to settle and build mud brick towns throughout the Wadi — such as Seiyun, Tarim and Shibam, the UNESCO World Heritage site pictured at top.

Topography, Rainfall and Flooding

Wadi Hadhramout is basically a network of valleys carved into the Eastern Plateau. The main Wadi runs from west to east, bisecting the plateau into two parallel ranges — the Northern and the Southern ranges.

The highlands of Hadhramaut are a rather broad, barren and pebbly plateau, averaging at about 1,300m to 1,400m above sea level, intersected by a few valleys; some deep and some shallow; some narrow and some wide. The uplands are very sparsely populated by a few Bedouins; while the valleys, like Wadi Hadhramaut and Wadi Do’an, are densely peopled.

A distinctive feature of the valleys of the Wadi Hadhramaut network is the flat-topped cliffs that drop vertically to the level wadi bottoms. This causes the runoff to be extremely rapid, with a surface that is either bare or covered in rock debris and minimal vegetation.

It’s mainly when the rain falls heavily on these highlands (March-April and June-September are considered monsoon periods) that the valleys below get flooded. These rainfall events can be very good for agriculture, but often the population in the valleys below do not know when it has rained heavily up on the Plateau, and so, when the water comes gushing down, many are caught unaware. At times the floods can cause enormous devastation to crops and buildings; and many people get killed.

Mud brick buildings built straight under the cliffs but away from the flood path

The floods that affect the Wadi come from tributary valleys that start in the Northern and Southern ranges, bringing runoff from a catchment area of approximately 34,000 square kilometres. Precipitation is estimated at 2040mcm p/a with runoff of about 500mcm.

In Oct. 2008, the tropical storm 03-B caused flooding throughout the Wadi. Thousands of families fled and 100 were declared dead or missing. 7000 people were made homeless. This was a result of thirty hours of heavy rain on the upper plateau.

You can see in the video how flat and massively huge the catchment area is, with thousands of small valleys that form networks of Wadis which drain all the runoff into the floodplains. Also, the main channel can be identified by the amount of Prosopis juliflora growing on its banks.

Sorry about the loud sound, but that’s what a 35 year old Soviet-era helicopter sounds like!

What Could Be Done

Now, what could be done is huge, in terms of flood mitigation, through slowing down the water and harvesting every drop to sustainably accommodate all this water in the valley to benefit the people.

Whatever rainfall comes down, it needs to be infiltrated and retained in the system, if it’s lost through runoff or excessive evaporation rates, then it’s going to gradually degrade the system, and if it’s going on for 100s and 100s of years , then the ultimate output is collapse.— John D Lui

The basic concept for the design for the whole Wadi is to stop and slowly spread and soak the floodwater — in effect to greatly extend the retention time. To do that we need to start at the top and work our way down, with the potential of completely mitigating the damaging effects of flooding.

Palm Farms in the Flood Plains

The effect of this will be a very large increase in soil fertility, giving us the possibility to design and implement a productive, perennial biological system (agroforestry) that will further moderate the effects of large flood events.

This system in its stable, mature form will convert the destructive events of the major floods to creative events that will increase soil water storage and continuously recharge the aquifers with fresh rainwater, which will in effect reduce the salinity of the aquifers. Surface flows of water in major flood events will be greatly moderated in both volume and speed with appropriate beneficial flows ideal for agricultural irrigation. This agricultural irrigation will be greatly expanded over time.

A Bit More Detail

Contour banks on top of the plateau will gently direct the runoff water towards the wadi top head cut. Since no machinery can reach the steep top slopes, a succession of gabions will be built by hand to a height of 1-1.5 m as still traps with spillways to release water in large events.

Top Head Cut as seen from the Plateau

As we go down the slope, accessibility to machinery is going to be easier, with a gentler slope and flatter base. Gabions at this profile will be higher, 1.5-3 m with larger spillways and repeated wherever the landscape profile suits.

In the lower wadi, where there’s an incised channel, gabions with contour swales will stop, spread and soak the water into the floodplain. This will be an ideal situation in which biodiversity can be increased through planting a diverse mixture of drought-hardy pioneer nitrogen-fixing leguminous trees and productive perennial fruit trees. These will grow with minimum inputs of water and fertilizer since the floodwaters will provide the needed nutrition for the soil and the trees. A very detailed illustration of this proposal can be seen in Bill Mollison’s Designers Manual, figure 11.9 and 11.5.

Scour Holes on the plateau, just like described in
Bill Mollison’s Designers’ Manual, Figure 11.6!

Community Involvement

During the 3-day workshop Geoff Lawton held, the organisers invited experts from the community to attend. Enthusiasm and the willingness to hear and learn from what was discussed was very evident.

A lot of community work and training is involved in the sustainability of the project. The involvement of community leaders and Muslim clerics in the collective community-awareness strategies are as important as specific training and development courses and activities for the overall community stewardship of the land and the structures.

The establishment of an independent Permaculture Research Institute (PRI Yemen) in the Wadi will be of great importance in the success of the project and the development of a community that actively takes care and sustains the potential outcomes of such as huge project.

During a field trip


  1. This is so exciting! We lived in Yemen for about ten years, the last two of them in Hadhramaut, though on the coast an hour or so from al Mukalla. I wish we had been there for this, what a wonderful opportunity. It will be amazing to see what happens, insh’Allaah, as the work there progresses. Permaculture has so much to offer Yemen, it’s good to see things being grown and nurtured instead of torn down and destroyed!

  2. Salah, what a great project and comprehensive desciption of the landscape! I was just curious to know how all of this came about? Also, what is your management structure? What donors have you approached? Is this project fully scoped and funded or are you seeking funds now? Looking forward to hearing more about this project in the future!

  3. It looks like a promising project. To gather much community interest and attention, continual support from Muslim clerics may be necessary. Socially speaking, the Muslim leaders roles will have to permanently include sustainability education in communities.

  4. @Sara – you’re point is well considered and actually one of the primary strengths going for us in this project – the support of the local clerics & leaders. Actually, it’s the very reason why we have achieved what we have thus far.

  5. @Genevieve- This project came about after a PDC was taught last year where the community including government officials and muslim clerics saw and understood how permaculture can have a positive effect on their landscape.
    Methodology for Participatory Assessment (MPA) is utilized where the communities of each valley will manage and apply the design. Funding is managed by the (Reconstruction Fund of Hadhramaut and Al-Mahra).

  6. In Shihr there is an American brother who is working to start an institute that teaches sustainable energy alternatives, as well as other things. Just for an example, he dug a tunnel under his building (and yes, the Yemenis thought he was a bit nuts!) and set up some sort of ventilation system so it would cool his office. Sheikh Abdullah al-Makree, the imaam of one of the local masjids was interested and supportive. I don’t know what his results were long term, but I know he has a lot of ideas he’d like to see put into action.

  7. I’m from Western Sahara, It’s a desrt will low rainfall,I need to benefit from your work, if you can give more detailsand jazaka Allahu kheran.

  8. Salah: interesting but you copied parts of your post above – from my blog (verbatim) without referring at all to it. That’s not fair at all.

    I am just a simple Hadhrami who enjoys writing and I believe that as a matter of courtesy (and ‘sharaf’), it is best to mention the source of any text copied.

    1. @ Barsawad Thank you for your comment ,, and I apologise for not replying earlier ,, I think I should sign for notifications about comments ! I agree with you ,, I might have used your blog and other blogs as references to this work. I appreciate the work you do since there is shortage in quality information about Hadhramout and Yemen in general in English language and hope that the cooperation between us will benefit Hadhramout, Yemen, and the Arab world in general.
      @ Talib Brahim ,,please send me more information on my email [email protected] and will be of as much help as I can ,, you can also check out some arabic youtube clips about permaculture by searching Salah Hammad Permaculture on Youtube.

  9. I am interested in development the work in Wadi Hadramout. I am aYemeni urban and regional planner. I appreitate to have area to help through my office in Aden or personally.
    Thank you and best regards,
    Ahmed Abunumay

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