Selling qât in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital. Photo: Bryan Denton

These days if you run across an article on Yemen, it will no doubt feature a scenario of gun-toting tribesmen swearing allegiance to Al-Qaeda, the latest German tourist hijackings or feigned shock at the terrible, terrible addictive drug called qât. At least this was the case in Sunday’s New York Times in another piece of mixed journalistic pablum by roving reporter Robert Worth. Entitling the article “Thirsty Plant Dries Out Yemen,”, the author seems unaware that the site of his posting (Jahiliya) is in fact the Arabic term for the time of “Ignorance” before the rise of Islam. I doubt this reporter stepped out of a Queen-of-Sheba-era time machine and interviewed Abraha about his recent defeat at the “Battle of the Elephant” before Mecca. So where exactly is the fabled posting site of Jahiliya? Ironically, it is part of a World Bank irrigation project. I will leave the irony about IMF money being poured into Jahiliya in the strict sense to the imagination of the reader. And I strongly suspect the posting was made from a fancy hotel in the capital Sanaa and not from a rural internet cafe, while sipping qishr. But for a front page article on a major newspaper, ignorance is no excuse.

Most of the article, once the opening salvos are digested and spit out (like qât leaves), is fine. But the hook is misleading, to say the least. Let’s start with the opening sentence: “More than half of this country’s scarce water is used to feed an addiction.” It might help to note that this figure is an estimate, difficult to measure on the ground, of irrigation water applied in agriculture. It does not represent the total water used or available in Yemen. Indeed Yemen faces a severe water crisis, since current estimates are that 3.3 billion m3/yr will be extracted for irrigation in 2010 out of a total consumption need of an estimated 4 billion m3/yr. There is not enough recharge for current and future extraction of groundwater, but there is plenty of room for better use of the scarce supply in a country where conveyance efficiency (75%), application efficiency (40-75%) and scheduling efficiency (80-90%) are dismal. Water supply is a huge problem, but shades of Dune Yemeni style are journalistic fanfare.

Feeding an addiction? The second sentence sinks deeper into ignorance of the facts about qât: “Even as drought kills off Yemen’s crops, farmers in villages like this one are turning increasingly to a thirsty plant called qat, the leaves of which are chewed every day by most Yemeni men (and some women) for their mild narcotic effect. The farmers have little choice: qat is the only way to make a profit.” First of all, the tree/shrub Catha edulis, known as qât in Yemen, is not a thirsty plant at all. It can function fine on rainfed land, but is irrigated in order to increase the growth of fresh leaves, the desired product. Thirsty plants would be oranges and bananas (both encouraged in the past by the Ministry of Agriculture and foreign advisors), both very poor choices for water-deficient Yemen.

Second, not everyone in Yemen chews every day, and the number of chewers has probably leveled off from earlier peaks, in part due to the high costs. Then there is the rather odd notion of a “mild narcotic effect.” The active ingredient in the fresh leaves (the only way qât is currently consumed in Yemen) is like that of pseudo-ephedrine. This is a stimulant, not a narcotic, the latter generating stupor, mental confusion and sleep. The sense of euphoria that can result for chewing qât is not like marijuana, opium or cocaine. The effect, usually retarding both appetite and sleep, differs depending on the kind of qât and the individual. And there is no evidence that qât consumption is physiologically addictive, as the anthropologist John Kennedy demonstrated more than two decades ago. Indeed, the fresh plant is not banned in the United States because it is narcotic, but because a derivative can be made from the leaves to create a very potent drug with cathinone. In this sense it is like chewing fresh coca leaves as opposed to snorting cocaine.

Well, at least Al-Qaeda does not appear before the fifth paragraph and the reporter is to be thanked that he does not dredge up the rather irrelevant point that Osama bin Laden’s roots are in the Hadramawt region of Yemen. But here are my questions for the reporter (or perhaps, more accurately his editor). Is not the issue of the water crisis facing Yemen an important enough issue, especially since lack of water is reaching crisis in other parts of the Middle East, on its own? Why does such a timely and critical issue have to be tied to the exotic hype of a “mild narcotic”? If you want to talk about addiction, try nicotine. Or look closer to home for a comparison: “In 2007, an estimated 19.8% (43.4 million) of U.S. adults were current cigarette smokers; of these, 77.8% (33.8 million) smoked every day, and 22.2% (9.6 million) smoked some days.” Indeed, the health consequences from tobacco, whether the traditional Yemeni madâ’a (waterpipe) or cigarettes, are more damaging than chewing qât.

And how about a little fact-checking about the plant itself. I am not defending the use of qât, but there is a lot of misinformation about the plant and this gets rehashed in most newspaper and popular magazine articles. The article suggests that farmers have little choice but to grow qât because it is the only way to make a profit. Actually, there are other crops that can turn a good profit, but most require even greater amounts of irrigation water. Yemeni farmers are not stupid, nor did they switch to qât just because there was no demand for other crops. In many ways qât is like tobacco, a lucrative crop because of the local demand. It is really easy to grow, as there is no fruit involved, has few pests or diseases, and does indeed bring much needed cash to farmers, even small landholders. In a country like Yemen, with scarce water potential and rapid population growth, it does indeed make sense to better utilize the rainfall and runoff as in traditional systems, as I have argued in my own work. But qât is not the problem; for a couple of decades it has actually been part of the solution in maintaining a semblance of success in the rural economy.

Daniel Martin Varisco

For an earlier post on qât in Yemen, see Tracing the History of Qat and my article available online on “Turning over a New Leaf”.