News / Middle East

Yemen’s Hunger for Qat Could Create National Thirst

Farmers in Yemen have turned to cultivating qat, a small leaf that stimulates conversation in most of the nation’s homes.

Vendors prepare qat for customers at a qat market, in the Yemeni capital Sana'a. Qat, which is popular with many Yemeni adults, is a leaf that gives a mild narcotic high when chewed. (file photo)
Vendors prepare qat for customers at a qat market, in the Yemeni capital Sana'a. Qat, which is popular with many Yemeni adults, is a leaf that gives a mild narcotic high when chewed. (file photo)
David Arnold

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.
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.

عل القات المخدرة التعطش الوطني في اليمن المزارعين في اليمن وزراعة القات. وهو نبات الصغيرة التي تحفز الحوار في معظم المنازل في البلاد. الاتجاه الزراعية يهدد تغييرات بيئية خطيرة، مثل خسارة فادحة في المياه الجوفية.
Follow our Middle East reports on Twitter
and discuss them on our Facebook page.

You May Like

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs