Breaking Gender Barriers in Protecting Culture Heritage in Yemen

Ahlam Awed, a 35-year-old female Yemeni, lost her husband during the ongoing conflict and was left alone with her two children. Living in a conservative society in the old city of Shibam, it was difficult for her to work and provide for her family. It was not until recently, she started working outside the walled city to remove Sesbania trees in a project implemented by UNESCO and funded by the European Union (EU).

I can now work to support my family while protecting my home by removing Sesbania trees.

Sesbania trees grow densely and randomly outside the walls of the World Heritage Site of Shibam in Yemen. The fruitless plants live long by branching their roots inside the soil for a distance longer than ten meters searching for water. They threaten the agricultural resources as well as the organic cultural heritage of the city by reorienting or blocking water streams and increasing their flow. This creates yearly flash floods damaging the city wall and long-term leakages affecting the traditional houses. The same trees are one of the reasons behind the 2008 devastating flood in Hadramout, a disaster causing the death and displacement of many Yemenis. To protect the ancient mud city, added to the List of the World Heritage Sites in Danger, natives are coming together to cut the trees.

A section of the Sesbania trees surrounding the city of Shibam has been completely removed. We saw tangible interaction from residents, especially women.
Abdulla Alsaqaf, Social Fund for Development (SFD) Project Officer

The project, “Cash for Work: Promoting Livelihood Opportunities for Urban Youth in Yemen”, employs Yemenis with a daily wage to safeguard cultural heritage in Yemen. Specifically, the intervention to remove Sesbania  trees in the Oasis surrounding Old Shibam,  involved 31 male and 21 female paid workers.

“We benefit from the firewood for our livelihood. We share it with our families, neighbors, and the needy,” said Awed. "We hope this work continues for us and the youth.”

Those interventions are mitigating the impact of climate change and constitute the first phase of the rehabilitation of the Oasis. What was once considered an ecological threat to the city is now providing residents a source of income and firewood for their houses. Unfortunately, the high wall of Shibam and mud-brick towers have already been damaged by the ongoing conflict and weather changes. Sesbania trees increased the level of torrents on mud buildings causing long-term water leakage and dampness. This led to the destruction of buildings dating back centuries.

“In Shibam, there are heritage landmarks such as Harun al-Rashid Mosque, Sultan al-Qu`aiti's Fort, and traditional houses,” said Awed. “Shibam is an open museum.”

To protect heritage sites from further deterioration, Yemenis are coming together to also repair and rebuild the historic city of Shibam, while receiving an income to support their families.  The large-scale urban rehabilitation works implemented in partnership with the Social Fund for Development (SFD) and the General Organization for the Preservation of Historic Cities in Yemen (GOPHCY) are promoting the use of traditional building materials and eco-friendly techniques, thus enhancing the sustainable preservation of Yemen’s unique cultural heritage.