Friday, December 23, 2011


It is a given fact that every country has one curious feature, which, to foreign observers at first seems jarring, then becomes so normal that it fades into the background, like bold wallpaper at an acquaintance's house. In Yemen, this feature is qat (also spelled khat or gat), a mildly stimulative leaf chewed by nearly everyone.

Like many curious features though, qat is slowly, but surely, killing Yemen.

Terraced qat fields near Wadi Dhahr
Economically speaking, it's never a good idea to plant a crop that's banned in most developed countries, and hence, is only purchased by locals, who are, in any case, poor (Yemen has a GDP per capita of just 2600 USD). In 2005, the total area under cultivation was 123, 933 hectares, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. Given the MoA's estimate that this area grows by 12% a year, by the end of 2011, this area could be 244, 622 hectares! Such an extensive area would be of better economic use if dedicated to cash crops like coffee, of which Yemen used to be a major producer. It would be even better if the land was directed to construction of factories and other economic infrastructure.

Using this area of qat cultivation and Ethiopian production estimates, 244 622 hectares of land could produce over 100 000 tonnes of coffee a year. Assuming Arabica coffee beans are used to replace qat, this amount is currently valued at 218.7 million USD, translating to substantial profits for rural farmers.

Worse, qat uses up about 30 percent of Yemen's already scarce water supplies. Yemeni agriculture relies primarily on groundwater, as rainfall is scarce. If qat cultivation continues, the lack of good profits it brings will mean that the government and general public will not have sufficient finances to cope with rising water prices, never mind the social and industrial consequences such a rise would entail.

Moreover, qat is chewed in afternoon sessions that begin after the Yemeni workday ends at 2-3 p.m. These sessions last about 3-4 hours and are social events in themselves. Logically speaking, time wasted in this way could be put to better use, mainly for longer (and more productive) workdays. It is difficult to directly connect the national qat addiction to Yemen's lack of development, but a quick comparision of the country with many of it's Arab neighbors is telling indeed.

Men chew qat in a hut overlooking the crop in Yemen.
Qat chewing sessions can last up to five hours a day.
In fact, qat is even regarded in playing a negative role in the Yemeni protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Protesters quietly dispersed every afternoon to chew qat, meaning that the anti-government momentum that toppled Tunisia's and Egypt's rulers was just not there. This despite the fact that economic conditions in Yemen are much worse than those of the other two nations. Yemeni's might endlessly disparage their political leaders at qat sessions, but until tribal militias clashed with government security forces, stunted by qat, that's all many of them do- talk.

Completely eradicating something which has got its claws so deeply sunk into a country is probably impossible. However, once the dust has settled in Yemen, a new government could begin by allocating land to other purposes and extending the workday. Post-revolution, Yemen will face many obstacles to progress. Here's hoping qat won't be a hurdle far into the future.

No comments:

Post a Comment