The Corrosive Nature of Qat in Yemen

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First-Year MA Candidate at SAIS Europe

Yemen’s fragile government faces major challenges: Al Qaeda grows in the South, Somali pirates terrorize its coastline, and US drone strikes have spiked. However, the less-known national addiction to qat has become a major obstacle to Yemen’s development and threatens to exhaust the country’s already meager water supply. If the government fails to reform its qat policies, Sana’a could become the world’s first capital to go completely dry.

Brought from Ethiopia in the 10th century, qat plays an integral role in Yemeni life—an entire culture centers on chewing the mildly narcotic leaf. Up to ninety percent of adult males chew qat three to four hours daily. An average bag of qat costs 5 US dollars, and in a country in which 45% of the population lives below the poverty line, this addictive plant drains limited financial resources. Further, qat has come to mark a family’s social standing such that families face pressure to serve the best and most expensive qat at special functions. Qat has also been associated with liver failure and other health issues. Finally, the time spent chewing the plant takes away from the hours Yemenis work daily, paralyzing productivity. The plant even accompanies afternoon governmental meeting, which helps explain the dysfunctional nature of the country’s management.

Qat engenders not only social ills but also environmental stress. Individual bags require over 500 liters of water to produce. According to Yemen’s Ministry of Agriculture, qat cultivation continues to increase by 12 percent annually. Farmers produce the crop because it returns a profit five times greater than any other agricultural product. As a result, Yemen, which once had a vibrant agricultural sector, now imports up to 80 percent of its food, exacerbating the country’s food security crisis and escalating food import prices. Qat has replaced the country’s world-renowned coffee and grape production, which once served as profitable exports. The situation is so dire that Sana’a’s water resources might completely dry up, forcing the city’s four million residents to become water refugees. If these inhabitants are forced to go in search of more fertile land, the ensuing situation will stoke conflict between the country’s regional communities.

The solution seems simple enough: in order to reduce the social and water pressures of qat, merely grow less. The problems with implementing this solution, however, are much more complex. Officials in the country’s extractive institutional system own large segments of land and profit from qat production. In true corruptive style, the government subsidizes diesel, which is used to extract the groundwater required to cultivate qat. These profits are used to pay off tribal leaders and the military, the two pillars of the Yemeni regime. Further, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president, was notorious for providing qat to garner political support. Understanding how the elites benefit from qat production helps explain why awareness campaigns elucidating qat’s harmful effects have failed to receive national backing; this support, however, is requisite for the message to reach the entire population.

Instead of pursuing status quo policies, the government needs to change course to alleviate the impending crises facing Yemen. Officials must drop the subsidy on diesel in order to reduce the profitability of qat and instead to incentivize farmers to begin producing more nutritious, less water-intensive crops. The government should also launch a public campaign against the use of qat to stave off the social and environmental dangers to the country. If they do not, Yemen’s dwindling water supply will force the government to either take more dramatic steps in the future or run out of water.

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