Whether Yemen resolves its leadership stalemate or plunges into civil war, the country has another growing problem on its hands - one that could rot the country from within. It all stems from qat - a naturally growing tropical plant that produces a stimulant that the country is addicted to. Yemen is a largely arid and rocky landscape on which more than 24 million people survive. And it is running out of water. Lack of rainfall has been a persistent problem, but qat is also major culprit. Some say the capital of Sana’a will go dry in 2025, others say 2017. Whichever prediction is correct, qat production may hasten the day when water runs out.
Yemen risks running out of water because farmers have switched from growing food to growing a plant that doesn’t nourish the body, but instead, produces an intense natural high. Now, Yemen’s highland qat farmers are being compared to the poppy growers in Afghanistan and the coca growers in the Andes Mountains of South America. National economies that are being seduced by the higher prices people will pay for a stimulating psychological experience.
“Yemen used to be self-sufficient back in the 1970s,” said Mohamed el-Kouhene. El-Kouhene used to direct the United Nations World Food Programme in Yemen and watched the shift as more fields were turned to from cereals to qat. “Yemen wasn’t importing grains and cereals then and now it is importing more than 80 percent of the grains and cereals,” he said. That means higher prices and a serious imbalance in trade economics for Arabian Peninsula’s poorest country.
“[Qat] is as much important, as essential, for the average Yemeni as praying, as drinking, as eating, as walking,” said el-Kouhene. Based on a World Bank study conducted in Yemen three years ago, el-Kouhene estimates that if you combine those who chew daily, regularly and occasionally, “90 percent is a reliable figure.”
Where is qat policy?
Only three percent of Yemen is arable. Two-thirds of the arable land in Yemen is now growing qat, according to some estimates. “Farmers are finding qat lucrative,” said ’Dr. Mustafa alAbsi, a professor of neuroscience and bio-behavioral health at the University of Minnesota medical school in Duluth.
“The most dramatic impacts are seen in Yemen where vast acreages of coffee have been turned to qat. We need really to have an integrated long-term policy if we want to address seriously the problem of qat,” said el-Kouhene. And what is going on right now in Yemen makes, I’m afraid, the issue of qat rather secondary,” he said.
Even if the nation were to solve soon the dilemma of who governs Yemen, there would not be a lot of votes to ban qat from the marketplace because a high percentage of the voters spend their afternoons in the ubiquitous public mafraj rooms and private homes. Men and an increasing number of women retire each day for an afternoon of qat and conversation.
Qat capital of the world
Yemen remains the world capital of qat because it is reputed to grow some of the best plants. Neighboring Ethiopia, which claims to be the original home of the shrub, has vastly increased its own production of qat, especially for export.
Yemeni anti-government protesters rest sitting on a sidewalk chewing Qat during clashes between the factions in Sana'a, March 13, 2011.
However, Yemen’s growers in the highlands have created an efficient sales and distribution system in order to get the leaves cut and bundled and delivered to customers. They have about 48 hours before the chemical, Cathinone, a natural amphetamine, loses its narcotic punch, and its market.
It takes a newspaper published in Sana’a one week to reach other cities in the countryside, but a qat distributor could make daily deliveries within 10 hours from the early-morning harvest of the leaves from the shrub Catha edulis. One observer remarked that if Yemen ever applied the efficiencies of the qat industry to other enterprises, “Yemen might suddenly find itself in much better economic condition.” Others have suggested that the qat industry’s need for a good transportation system led to better roads in Yemen.
Most of the qat is consumed inside Yemen, but some is flown out to a regional market. Qat has become increasingly popular in more than a dozen countries, including the United Kingdom, but most European countries and the United States have ruled it an illegal drug: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers it legal if the Cathinone has lost its narcotic powers.
Cancer, malnutrition, pesticides
“It’s a class 1 narcotic in some countries, but there is no hard science to prove it,” said Dr. alAbsi. Al’Absi runs a qat research project partly funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, to determine if qat is truly a narcotic.
“What concerns me most,” said el-Kouhene, “is that women also consume qat and that is not a good sign. If women are to give birth to children that are themselves malnourished, you can imagine what kind of children they will have.” He said that an estimated 40 percent of the population of Yemen is malnourished. “The consumption of qat is a contributor. This is a cycle of malnourishment,” he added.
In addition, Dr. alAbsi has noted a correlation between chewing qat and smoking cigarettes that suggests that when young Yemenis and women turn to chewing qat, they also are inclined to start smoking cigarettes. In both cases, there have been increases in the incidence of cancer of the mouth and gums.
Yemen is faced with a growing economic, environmental and health dilemma, but advocates of the change are few in comparison to the majority of Yemenis who like to chew qat.