Thursday, January 5, 2012

Qat: Yemen's Epidemic

Whoever knows Yemen, certainly knows about Qat. In case you don't know what it is, Qat is a green leafy plant that many Yemeni chew for hours, almost daily. Many who visited Yemen are familiar with the image of Yemenis with swelling cheeks, picking the plant leaves, filling it into their mouths and chewing it. Qat contains an amphetamine like stimulant which triggers a mild euphoria and a state of excitement which makes people become talkative and more relaxed. The World Health Organization classified it as a drug of abuse with possible psychological dependence, however it does not consider it to be seriously addictive. Qat is rather an addictive social habit, and a rather expensive one considering that 45% of the population live below the poverty line.

Unfortunately Qat chewing has become an embedded social activity in Yemen and part of it's culture. It is a  nationwide habit, a basic form of social interaction among men, women and now even some children consume it. Yemeni gather everyday in the afternoons to chew Qat. It is also consumed in every wedding, funeral and even in business and political meetings. The social sessions of Qat chewing usually start at the end of the work day around 3 pm and lasts till the late hours of the evening. Qat has become an epidemic in every Yemeni household and has detrimental effects on Yemen's agriculture, economy, health and society. Massive time and resources are wasted to chewing this cursed plant, paralyzing Yemenis to think or work towards building Yemen.

Although the plant itself originally came from Ethiopia, Qat has become the largest source of rural income and employment in Yemen since it's cultivation occupies a huge portion of agricultural land, almost 65% according to some figures. Farmers stopped growing fruits and crops, such as coffee and grapes which Yemen had been historically famous for, and replaced it with Qat instead, which is easily cultivated, highly demanded, sold daily in local markets all over Yemen and yields immediate and unparalleled profits making it a lucrative business.

Qat cultivation is depleting Yemen scarce water resources, since it's cultivation requires almost half of Yemen's water supply. In Sanaa alone, Yemen's capital which according to experts will be the first city in the world to run out of water in 2025, "Qat plant consumes 60 million cubic meters of water per year - twice the amount consumed by it's citizens".

The average Yemeni spends a substantial percentage of his income on Qat, while low income families spend almost half of their budget on Qat, more than on the purchase of food, which causes widespread malnutrition, the underlying cause of 50% of child death in Yemen according to UNICEF. Qat is also believed to cause an increased number of mouth and throat cancer, due to the chemicals and pesticides used to grow it. Kidney failure, gastritis, constipation, loss of apetite, insomnia, tooth decay and discoloration are just a few among a long list of health related problems caused by Qat.

Efforts have been made to counter this addiction which infected Yemen for centuries. An anti-qat initiative launched by Prime Minister Muhsin al-Ayni in 1972 was massively opposed and unfortunately led to his downfall after a few months. The World Bank also helped in fighting the Qat addiction in Yemen. A law passed by the government in 2002 prohibiting Qat chewing in government facilities was and still is ignored. In 2010 the World Bank Civil Society Fund awarded six Yemeni Non-Governemntal Organzations (NGO's) financial support for civic engagement in the fight against Qat. In March 2011 the government raised Qat taxes to 200% and reportedly prohibited Qat markets from major cities, yet in reality Yemen's government has been mostly passive about combating it since Qat sales taxes constitutes the main local revenue source. Ironically it allowed Qat be farmed in state agricultural lands and also subsidiezes the diesel required to pump water for it, and by doing so depleting it's own resources.

Yemen's Revolution for Change should add Qat elimination to it's long agenda. Attempts to do so historically have been greatly resisted, making it a challenging and strenuous process and requiring a level of political leadership and commitment. Qat can not be banned or eliminated overnight, it should be a gradual weaning process which will require a lot of time and effort. Governmental subsidies encouraging growth of fruits, vegetables and crops in place of Qat, awareness campaigns, about the hazards of Qat, with the assistance of the civic society through the media, at schools and among farmers, promoting alternative ideas and venues for entertainment and social interaction, are necessary steps among many which could lead to the gradual elimination of Qat. Hopefully the determined people of Yemen, the second most armed nation in the world, who amazed everyone with their peaceful Revolution, impressed them with the 264 km Life March, and are currently uprising widely against corruption will make the right choices and take the gradual and necessary steps to eliminate this epidemic form Yemeni society.

Social media campaigns on Facebook and twitter aim to create awareness about the detrimental effects of Qat on the individual and on Yemen at large. These initiative needs to be supported by people in Yemen and endorsed by state and private Yemeni media channels, news papers, NGOs, governmental and public figures in order for it to succeed and become a step amongst many to bring about the desired, and ultimate goal of "No Qat in Yemen".

Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything. -George Bernard Shaw

Related links:
Medical and social aspects of qat in Yemen: a review
The impact of qat-chewing on health, a re-evalaution
Yemen, World Bank Fighting QAT Addiction Among Youth
Yemen's capital will run out of water by 2025
Yemen: Chewing your way to an early death
Is Yemen Chewing Itself to Death
Silent emergency of malnutrition threatens young lives in Yemen
Yemen's battle against Qat
Yemenis organize "day without qat"

1 comment:

  1. A shocking read. Did not know of qat until this article brought me awareness of it. Qat is destroying many aspects of Yemen and yemenis. It is an epidemic that MUST be stop as it wrecks the vital sources and damages lives.