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

Lebanese Media Unite to Support Palestinians in Gaza

Joint newscast billed as Arab world’s first unified news bulletin in support of Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip More

Photogallery Australian PM Alleges ‘Coverup’ at MH17 Crash Site

Meanwhile, Russia's ambassador to Malaysia denies plane's black boxes were opened before they were handed over to Malaysian officials More

Despite Advances in AIDS Treatment, Stigma Lingers

Leading immunologist tells VOA that stigma is often what prevents those infected with disease from seeking treatment 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.
IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Formi
X
July 22, 2014 10:26 AM
Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Relic of Saint Draws Catholics Worried About Immigration Issue

A Roman Catholic saint who is a figure of devotion for those crossing the border into the United States is attracting believers concerned about the plight of undocumented immigrants. Mike O'Sullivan reports from Los Angeles, where a relic of Saint Toribio has drawn thousands to local churches.
Video

Video Ukraine Rebels Surrender MH17 Black Boxes

After days of negotiations, a senior separatist leader handed over two black boxes from an airliner downed over eastern Ukraine to Malaysian experts early Tuesday. While on Monday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously demanded that armed groups controlling the crash site allow safe and unrestricted access to the wreckage.
Video

Video In Cambodia, HIV Diagnosis Brings Deadly Shame

Although HIV/AIDS is now a treatable condition, a positive diagnosis is still a life altering experience. In Cambodia, people living with HIV are often disowned by friends, family and the community. This humiliation can be unbearable. We bring you one Cambodian woman’s struggle to overcome a life tragedy and her own HIV positive diagnosis.
Video

Video Nature of Space Exploration Enters New Age

Forty-five years ago this month, the first humans walked on the moon. It was during an era of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. World politics have changed since then and -- as Elizabeth Lee reports -- so has the nature of space exploration.
Video

Video Chicago’s Argonne Lab Developing Battery of the Future

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science awarded a $120 million grant to a new technology center focused on battery development - headquartered at Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago, Illinois. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there scientists are making the next technological breakthroughs in energy storage.
Video

Video In NW Pakistan, Army Offensive Causes Massive Number of Displaced

Pakistan’s army offensive in North Waziristan has resulted in the large-scale displacement of the local population. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports from northwest Pakistan where authorities say around 80 percent of the estimated 1 million internally displaced persons [IDPs] have settled in Bannu district, while much of the remaining 20 percent are scattered in nearby cities.
Video

Video Kurdish Peshmerga Force Secures Kirkuk, Its Oil

The Kurdistan regional government has sent its Peshmerga troops into the adjacent province of Kirkuk to drive out insurgents, and to secure the area's rich oil fields. By doing this, the regional government has added a fourth province to the three it officially controls. The oil also provides revenue that could make an independent Kurdistan economically strong. VOA’s Jeffrey Young went out with the Peshmerga and filed this report.
Video

Video Malaysia Reeling: Second Air Disaster in Four Months

Malaysia is reeling from the second air disaster in four months involving the country’s flag carrier. Flight 340 vanished in March and despite an extensive search, no debris has been found. And on Thursday, Flight 17, likely hit by a surface-to-air missile, came apart over eastern Ukraine. The two incidents together have left more than 500 people dead. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Kuala Lumpur.

AppleAndroid