Yemen, Drugs and the Water Table
What are the economic, environmental and political ramifications of Yemen’s qat obsession?
January 13, 2010
Yemen is home to a unique landscape that boasts a moderate climate, fertile valleys, towering mountains and a culture that is nothing if not unique. So attractive is Yemen that, upon its discovery by the Romans, it was given the name Arabia Felix — the “blessed Arabia.”
Over the past two millennia, however, Yemen has developed a less positive reputation amongst foreigners. Today, Westerners are more likely to identify Yemen as the origin of the failed Christmas Day 2009 bombing plot involving Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole or the ancestral homeland of Osama Bin Laden — rather than recognizing its unique culture and landscape.
Yemen faces a growing number of difficulties. With a poor economy that is often cited as a case study for the failures of IMF structural adjustment programs, declining oil output, one of the world’s highest population growth rates and a mounting battle with Islamic extremism, Yemen’s government is not short on problems.
And then there is the matter of a drug called qat. In the decades since Yemen’s independence, the country has seen a dramatic rise in its consumption of the substance.
The substance, which is also known by its Latin name Catha edulis, is a narcotic shrub that elicits feelings of euphoria when its leaves are chewed. Qat consumption is so prevalent in Yemen that its use has become nearly synonymous with Yemeni culture.
The consumption of qat in Yemen has parallels with the traditional use of coca leaves in South America — and has been widely criticized by foreign governments and NGOs because of its negative impacts on Yemeni society and its potential for becoming a popular drug in Europe and North America.
Regardless of one’s views on the country’s use of qat, it is exceedingly clear that there are mounting costs for Yemen’s consumption of the substance.
Research by the World Bank has found that personal expenditures on qat in the country account for about 10% of personal income.
Given that the substance is consumed by all segments of society, qat expenditures as a percentage of family income tend to be highest among Yemen’s poor.
In addition to the financial costs of chewing, a World Bank report noted that the practice of consuming the substance during afternoon hours has inhibited the development of a productive workforce in Yemen — with up to 25% of usable working hours being devoted to chewing.
Although Yemenis are currently paying the economic price for their consumption of qat, an environmental crisis may be the drug’s enduring legacy. Yemen naturally suffers from a shortage of renewable water resources.
If Yemen’s renewable water resources were apportioned on a per capita basis, each citizen would be entitled to around 220 cubic meters of water annually. This is distressing when compared with average consumption rates in the Middle East and globally — at 1,250 and 7,500 cubic meters per year, respectively.
This lack of water has resulted in the mining of non-rechargeable aquifers in order to meet the country’s increasing water needs.
The country’s infatuation with qat is playing a major role in the water crisis because of the amount of water needed to cultivate the crop. As production increases to match the rising demand for the substance, water becomes scarcer.
It is estimated that the amount of land used to cultivate qat has increased 13-fold in the past three decades.
Today, a third of all groundwater extraction in Yemen is used for the cultivation of qat. Not only are Yemenis robbing future generations of water through their consumption of non-renewable fossil aquifers, the effects of over-use are being seen today. The water table is falling by between two and six meters per year in parts of the country.
A number of experts have claimed that Sana’a will be the first of the world’s capitals to exhaust its water resources — possibly before the end of the decade. As can be expected, qat is a major contributor to this shortage. In the early 1990s, it was determined that the amount of water used to cultivate qat in the city and its surrounding areas accounted for twice what was being used for human consumption.
While Sana’a’s water crisis is troubling, other parts of the country suffer from similar — if not more severe — water shortages.
In a number of villages, fits of violence have broken out over the scarce water resources. Most notably, a 1999 conflict over a spring near the city of Ta’iz left six dead and 60 injured.
Although there has been discussion in Yemen’s NGO community about conflict mediation tactics that can limit such conflicts, there is clearly a need to address the underlying problem. Unfortunately, there are no easy ways to wean Yemen off qat.
With 73% of Yemen’s population living in rural areas, it is not surprising that agriculture is a staple of the country’s economy. For Yemen’s farmers, qat is their primary cash crop.
Although qat accounts for just 10% of cultivated land, it constitutes a third of the country’s agricultural GDP — and 6% of total GDP.
The drug’s economic importance
In a country that competes with the Sudan for bragging rights in being the poorest country in the region, qat is an important source of urban-to-rural wealth transfer.
Additionally, one in seven working Yemenis are employed directly in the production and distribution of the drug. Given qat’s importance to the economy, any attempt to curb its use must also provide an alternative source of income for those disadvantaged by the shift.
This task has proved difficult for the Yemeni government and agricultural NGOs. Cash crops that have been suggested as alternatives to qat either require additional water to produce or give an inferior return on labor. A recent study has suggested that qat is ten to 20 times more profitable than competing crops.
Yemen’s dependence on qat has created quite the conundrum for its political leaders. The economic costs of limiting production may make any plan politically infeasible. At the same time, the environmental implications suggest that they can’t afford not to change.
Only time will tell how the problem ends. Unfortunately, time — like water — is not Yemen’s abundant resource.
Qat consumption is so prevalent in Yemen that its use has become nearly synonymous with Yemeni culture.
The country's infatuation with qat is playing a major role in the water crisis.
Up to 25% of usable working hours are devoted to chewing qat in Yemen — inhibiting the development of a productive workforce.
Today, a third of all groundwater extraction in Yemen is used for the cultivation of qat.
Although Yemenis are currently paying the economic price for their consumption of qat, an environmental crisis may be the drug's enduring legacy.
Student, University of South Dakota Jonathon Walz is currently a senior at the University of South Dakota majoring in Political Science and Economics. His academic interests include Middle Eastern politics and Arabic language. In addition to his undergraduate institution, he has studied at the London School of Economics and Political Science and at locations throughout […]