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Qat’s out of the bag, Part II

Qat’s out of the bag, Part II

Yemen’s leafy stimulant is either destroying the country or saving it from disaster. Which is it? Part II of a series

October 26, 2008 8:40 by

And there are good reasons to do so. Of all the dangers associated with qat, the direst may be overconsumption of water. In a 2007 report, the World Bank said Yemen is “enduring a water crisis that ranks among the worst in the world.” Per capita fresh water availability sits at 150 cubic meters per year, one of the lowest in the arid Middle East region. Farmers typically irrigate their qat crops by digging wells to pump fossil water out of aquifers deep under the surface.

About 30 percent more water is coming out of the ground than is going in, and both the country’s water supply and sanitation system are failing to keep pace its fast-growing population. Qat is literally sucking the country dry.

It gets worse, says Abdul-Ghani al-Eryani, an outspoken activist and businessman who has family ties to members of the current and previous governments. The pumps that drain groundwater run on diesel fuel, says al-Eryani, a regular chewer who has followed the qat issue closely. “Each riyal that a farmer spends on diesel costs the national treasury four riyals. The cost of subsidizing diesel is so huge to the economy that perhaps any benefit that comes out of it becomes insignificant.” Since the government estimates that 70 to 90 percent of the qat economy slips through the country’s tax system, the balance is a colossal negative for the public purse.

During an informal qat chew in a friend’s living room, al-Eryani explains why the government is reluctant to come to grips with this. “The [health] effect of qat is becoming obvious to doctors,” he says. “But again, to have a complete picture, you have to [do] proper studies – which the government has shown no interest in doing. It has not only shown no interest in doing it, but it has actually, at some point in time, actively opposed any research in qat.”

Why? The government is simply protecting a key constituency, he says. “The leadership here belongs to the tribal section of society, and qat farming is probably one of the most important economic resources of tribal areas,” which lie mainly around Sana’a and stretch northward to Sa’da, near the Saudi border.

There’s a novel solution floating about, which has already been proposed by al-Eryani’s brother, Abdul-Rahman al-Eryani, the current minister of water and environment (and earlier by his cousin, Mohammed Lotfi al-Eryani, the previous minister). The idea is to start importing qat from the Horn of Africa, where domestic usage is far less and the economies could use the extra cash more.

Revenue gained from import taxes and savings on fuel subsidies could then be diverted to support sustainable agriculture for rural areas, which would have the added benefit of securing the country’s food supply in the face of global shortages. Anti-qat campaigners who argue against usage on moral and religious grounds are unlikely to be impressed with this idea. But at least the government would have some handle on a habit that has turned into a nationwide binge.

It’s not the anti-qat crowd that needs to be sold on the importing idea, in any case. “Qat farmers said they would shoot down any cargo planes that come in with qat,” says al-Eryani. “And, of course, they have the guns to back that.” It will take the government 10 years to accept the idea of importing qat, he adds.

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