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 One Year After Thai Coup, No End in Sight for Military Rule

Since carrying out the May 22, 2014 coup, the general has retired from the military but is still firmly in charge More

Goodbye, New York

This is what the fastest-growing big cities in America have in common More

Job-Seeking Bangladeshis Risk Lives to Find Work

The number of Bangladeshi migrants on smugglers’ boats bound for Southeast Asian countries has soared in the past two years 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.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs