Yemen has recently become the focus of increased media attention as a result of the proxy war there being fought between the US, Saudi Arabia, the government of Yemen and multiple tribal and Islamist insurrections. But in an environmentally marginal country such as Yemen, the popularity of the narcotic qat ranks high among the country’s difficulties. Heavy qat use not only consumes its users’ teeth and income, but also constitutes the lion’s share of Yemeni’s agricultural water usage. This is a serious problem in a country where water poverty is endemic and population growth is high: “[a]lmost 45% of all water in Yemen is used to cultivate a plant that feeds no one, in a country where almost half of the population is food insecure,” notes The Guardian. Demand for water is expected to exceed supply by the early 2020s, and due to Yemen’s poverty and geography, building desalinization plants is impractical.
Local activists have frequently targeted the widespread use of qat, but their impact has been limited. Qat is not only exceedingly popular, but “one in every seven working Yemeni is employed in producing and distributing qat”. Its economic importance to both poor and wealthy, and the social status that chewing it confers on users, have made official attempts to limit its consumption extremely unpopular in the past. Government officials in the hinterlands are also uprooting qat trees and promoting cultivation of other cash crops.
In the past few years, however, grassroots energies have been revitalized, with activists focusing on organizing “qat-free” events, media campaigns and getting merchants to stop selling the leaf.
What would the exact process be in replacing qat with other crops, such as coffee and olives?
In the district of Haraz , they are replacing qat with coffee and almonds, the northern [region] of Haraz will be qat-free in three months. There is a firm that is buying the almond and selling it outside Yemen. The farmers there said that they are gaining more money now, they plant almond. There is a law that has a long-term strategy (to be implemented over the next 20 years) that would give the farmers alternative crops and uproot 10% of all qat trees [annually]. Besides banning the chemicals farmers are applying to qat trees to make it grow the whole year (the trees must be specially treated to produce leaves all year round) and protesting for bans on qat use by government officials, many of whom use it during work hours.
Does qat present an obstruction to Yemeni women entering the labor force?
Yes. And not only that, but [addicted] mothers are not taking care of their kids; they spend the morning sleeping and wake up in the noon because they are chewing qat the whole night and suffer insomnia from it. Women meet together to chew qat just as the men do. Kids are either in the streets or – increasingly – chewing leaves with a parent. It’s a sad reality.
Because the drug is a staple of social life, and has become a part of professional life too, do people risk being socially excluded and their own career advancement if they don’t use the drug?
Yes. We have tried bringing those who’ve quit it together and introducing them to others who don’t chew. We will try to work with the cafés in Yemen and entertainment venues to gather people and give them discounts if they do not chew the leaves at these establishments.
How does qat affect overall health in the country, particularly dental health?
The average adult eating three meals a day chews food for approximately one and half hours of that day. In Yemen, though, many qat users chew on the leaves for seven hours a day! This has detrimental effects on the jaw and the teeth, not including the fact that the processing chemicals in qat can cause gum and esophageal cancers. I made an appointment with a dentist in Yemen who is going to show me some of his worst cases and we will make a video about it [to raise awareness].
How would your campaign curve consumer demand?
So far we are working firstly on awareness (visiting schools and hosting press conferences), and we hold a silent protest every week at a qat shops for awareness. Secondly, we are working on giving alternatives to the farmers who want to uproot qat trees. And we are also giving the youth alternatives to sitting around and chewing. We are changing the society by doing qat-free weddings, which we believe is developing into a trend. Every other day I see someone writing on Facebook that he will quit qat, which makes me very happy. Some of them are well-known writers, politicians or people who work in media.
As qat requires a certain level of freshness, qat growers must be in Yemen and the capital it generates therefore stays in the country. Can you describe how the capital fits in to the Yemeni economy, and who benefits most from the industry?
Those who benefit most from qat are actually VIP figures in Yemen: tribal leaders, and MPs (who are also tribes leaders). In 1972 Prime Minister Mohsin Al-Aini thought about uprooting qat trees en masse, and this was the reason he had to step down!
How much of household income is spent on qat? How does this affect overall nutritional consumption in Yemeni households?
Yemenis on average are spending US$4 on qat daily [when the average weekly income is US$14]. Addicts prefer buying qat to spending money on buying food or clothes or taking their kids to school. Many end up borrowing money to fund their habit. At one qat vendor’s stall, people were leaving their cell phones as collateral because they couldn’t afford to pay for their daily purchases.