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City farming in Sana'a: A hobby with potential.

Introducing rural practices to an urban environment carries risks, but it may help solve Yemen's chronic food insecurity.

Hajj Mahdi Muhammad lives in the Al-Sabaeen neighborhood of Sana'a city. He moved to the capital in the early 1980s to work with the military, and is originally from Utma, a green and mountainous region in western Dhamar.

Within a few years of settling in the capital, Mohammad says he became nostalgic for the rustic life he led in Utma. Eager to recreate what he could of its rural environment, he began rearing sheep in his front yard.

He has been city farming ever since, and says the company of his sheep help him feel closer to home. "We are used to raising sheep, I don't think I would be able to live without doing so. Every day I clean after them, I give them feed and even our leftovers."

As a matter of necessity, Muhammad's relationship with his sheep has grown increasingly intimate. Following several cases of theft amongst urban sheep herders in 2012, he decided to move his flock of ten sheep into the third floor of his house, where they remain today.

Rearing animals in the city is relatively uncommon, but there are others doing it in Muhammad's neighborhood. Alawi Thabet, who also lives in Al-Sabaeen, has been keeping sheep on the roof of his house since 2003.

Thabet, 75, is originally from the Badan district of Ibb governorate. Like Muhammad, he does not consider it his primary source of income, but merely a useful way for a retired man to spend his time.

"It is necessary for a man to have things to do in his free time, so that he does not feel a burden to society," said Thabet. "For me raising sheep is the best way to do that, I have been doing this since I was a child."

The pros and cons of urban livestock

Muhammad says he and his family are not bothered by having sheep in the house and, since livestock are common enough in his area, he claims the neighbors do not mind either.

Ali Saleh, a tenant in Mohammad's house, says he is not disturbed by the noise or smell because he considers it "a natural thing." However, Saleh and Mohammad are rural migrants, and not all city dwellers consider it acceptable practice. As Mohammad admits, animal waste including feces is thrown out with the trash on a daily basis.

Manaf Hasan, 25, who lives in Al-Hasaba neighborhood and is originally from the rural district of Gabal Habashi in Taiz, concedes it is difficult keeping animals in the city. Bringing fodder into the house is messy, he says, and not everyone is used to the smell of the animals. Embarrassed by what his neighbors thought of the practice, he and his family stopped rearing sheep at their home ten years ago.

Beyond the nuisance of smell, keeping livestock in unsanitary conditions poses more serious risks of disease and can pollute waterways. As Sami Nassar, the director of Epidemiology at the Ministry of Agriculture, points out, keeping livestock in close proximity to humans increases the chance that microorganisms--such as screw worm--will infect human populations.

There are no laws preventing or regulating urban livestock in Yemen, but according to Nasser Al-Ansi, the director of Veterinary Medicine at the Ministry of Agriculture, any risk is minimal so long as livestock owners keep the animals and their living quarters clean.

According to records at the Ministry of Agriculture, there were only two registered cases of human screw worm infections in 2014 resulting from domestic sheep, which were found in Hodeida governorate.

There are no accurate statistics regarding the numbers of livestock being kept in Sana'a city, but Al-Ansi believes the majority are to be found in suburban and underdeveloped neighborhoods such as Al-Safia, and that the majority of livestock owners are of lower socio-economic backgrounds.

The risks involved will increase with population growth and urbanization, but urban livestock can also be a source of income during difficult times, and they offer protection from volatile food prices.

Although it is showing signs of improvement, levels of food insecurity have reached unprecedented levels throughout the country. According to research by the UN World Food Programme (WFP), Yemen now ranks as the world's eighth most food-insecure country.

Civil unrest and political crisis in 2011 led to the country's worst food insecurity in decades. A 40 percent increase on 2009 levels meant that some 45 percent of the population became food insecure in 2011, a figure that has only dropped to an estimated 41.1 percent in 2014, according to the group's latest report.

With nearly half the population suffering from food insecurity, rural areas are far more vulnerable than urban areas, where on average one-quarter of the population are food-insecure, according to the report. This is nonetheless a significant proportion--in Sana'a city, with a population of approximately 2.8 million, the WFP estimates 11 percent suffer from "severe" and another 12.7 percent from "moderate" food insecurity.

Nearly a quarter of the capital's population thus struggled to feed themselves in 2014. Although Muhammad and Thabet explained animal rearing as a lifestyle choice or a past time, urban livestock may offer solutions to Yemen's unpredictable food security.

Muhammad currently tends to 12 sheep in his house, which cost him about YR2,500 ($12) per month to keep fed. While he considers it a small price to pay for something that brings him so much joy, he says the sheep also provide him with a source of emergency income, especially during Eid and other special occasions.

Thabet says he sells on average four of his sheep a year at around YR20,000 ($93) each, a considerable markdown from average market prices. According to WFP statistics, the average price for a sheep in Sana'a was at least YR39,000 ($181) at the end of 2014, which represented a 30 percent increase on the previous year. It is nonetheless a significant amount of money for many Yemenis, and the annual fluctuation reveals how volatile food prices can be in the country.

Purchase remains the principal way that both rural and urban households access food, according to the WFP. Nationally, over 95 percent of food consumed at household level is purchased, a figure that nears 100 percent in urban areas.

With such high levels of food insecurity and food price volatility, urban livestock may offer families in the city much needed self-sufficiency in difficult times.

Nassar says the numbers of urban livestock are too small, and the evidence for risks of infection insignificant, for the government to take a more active role--which, he reminds us, has far more pressing concerns. Yet food insecurity is surely one of the most pressing concerns for many Yemenis. Moreover, as population growth, rural-urban migration, and urbanization continue unabated, government authorities may be forced to take a closer look at the practice soon enough.

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Publication:Yemen Times (Sana'a, Yemen)
Geographic Code:7YEME
Date:Jan 26, 2015
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