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

Tired of Waiting, South Africans Demand Change ‘Now’

With chronic poverty and lack of basic services largely fueling recent xenophobic attacks, many in Rainbow Nation say it’s time for government to act More

Challenges Ahead for China's Development Plans in Pakistan

Planned $46 billion in energy and infrastructure investments in Pakistan are aimed at transforming the country into a regional hub for trade and investment More

'Forbidden City' Revisits Little Known Era of Asian-American Entertainment

Little-known chapter of entertainment history captured in 80s documentary is revisited in new digitally remastered format and book More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
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.
Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festivali
X
April 24, 2015 4:09 AM
Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Keeping Washington Airspace Safe Is Tall Order

Being the home of all three branches of the U.S. federal government makes Washington, D.C. the prime target for those who want to make their messages and ideas heard. Unfortunately, many of them choose to deliver them in unorthodox ways, including from the air, as a recent incident clearly showed involving a gyrocopter landing on the Capitol’s West Lawn. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.
Video

Video Hope, Prayer Enter Fight Against S. Africa Xenophobia

South Africa has been swept by disturbing attacks on foreign nationals. Some blame the attacks on a legacy of colonialism, while others say the economy is to blame. Whatever the cause, ordinary South Africans - and South African residents from around the world - say they're praying for the siege of violence to end. Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.

VOA Blogs